The PlayThat Goes Wrong and Lights! Camera! Improvise! would live up to their past work; within minutes the opening scene, a prison breakout complicated by cheesy wordplay straight out of a Zucker Bros movie, had proved the company knew what they were doing when they branched out - slightly - from plays going wrong. Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields return as writers and Mark Bell as director of The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, cast almost entirely with familiar faces from their farces and improv shows. The setting is 1950s Minneapolis, and gangster Mitch (Shields) has fled jail and sought out ex-girlfriend Caprice (Charlie Russell.) But he's not after a romantic reunion: Her father Mr Freeboys (Lewis) is the manager of a bank that'll be holding the enormous diamond of a visiting Hungarian prince in its vaults.
Attempting to help are Caprice's new boyfriend Sam (Dave Hearn) and prison
guard-turned accomplice Cooper (Greg Tannahill,) who hopes to use his amateur
dramatics skills in the heist.
Leaving aside the "Goes Wrong" format has allowed the company to embrace many other
forms of comedy although they're still focusing very much on the silly side of
things, and there's no shortage of painful-looking slapstick - with Sayer's
67-year-old intern Warren getting the brunt of the violence. The story is, of
course, a pretty ludicrous one that pays homage both to heist movies and classic
screwball comedies, but The Comedy About a Bank Robbery is essentially a
sketch show made up of increasingly ambitious setpieces.
So the first act climaxes in an incredibly well-choreographed piece of farce in
Caprice's bedroom as she tries to hide Sam from the unexpectedly-returned Mitch,
involving a flip-down bed that, of course, flips back into the wall as soon as
someone lies on it, as well as a number of other ludicrous hiding places and an
ill-fated flock of seagulls. A running joke that Hearn in a false moustache is a
dead ringer for Lewis culminates in three Mr Freeboys running around and a great
punchline*, and as well as everything else that befalls the hapless crook, Mitch
also gets caught between the amorous embraces of Sam's spectacularly beehived mother
Ruth (Nancy Wallinger) and her beau, the inept policeman Shuck (Jeremy "Baby Hugh
David Farley's set offers up a number of tunnels, cubby-holes and concealed dangers
to provide slapstick and acrobatic comedy, never more so than in a second act
setpiece that takes the common theatrical gag of someone standing up in an upright
"bed" to its extreme: A view of the bank "from above," with Sayer and Lewis on a
floor rotated to 90 degrees in a scene that takes great glee from breaking the
fourth wall. But there's also attention to detail in tiny jokes - Evil Alex couldn't
stop raving about the "windscreen wipers" in a sight gag half the audience probably
Mischief's other shows have managed to carry on with cast changes and, if it runs as
long as it clearly deserves to this one will as well, but it's also well-tailored to
a cast most of whom have been working together for a good few years, and gives
everyone a chance to shine: Wallinger and Tannahill take the lead on a few musical
numbers that punctuate the action, while Chris Leask, who plays all the supporting
characters, gets his moment in the second act when he has to play three of Caprice's
suitors having an argument. Although not quite "darker and edgier" than their
earlier work this does have a few moments of black humour, especially near
the end with its mounting death toll; but this is still a show that should have very
broad appeal - and could well be Mischief's funniest night at the theatre yet.
The Comedy About a Bank Robbery by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields is
booking until the 2nd of October at the Criterion Theatre.
Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.
*"Caprice! Mitch! Me!"