The audience around me are mostly of the stereotypically middle-class theatre-going demographic – suited and booted city workers, come to catch a show after a day in the office. While there are also the usual clusters of tourists, students, and a few families, the generally older make-up of the audience is the first thing that impresses upon me, and as the curtain goes up I’m wondering if the row of businessmen in Jermyn Street suits know that they will be watching a few hours of farcical silliness, rather than the kind of hard-hitting, topical drama that I have always imagined city workers to frequent.
Certainly, I’m expecting Mischief Theatre company to have their work cut out for them engaging with this audience. It is a testament to the production, and a representative analysis of the rest of the show, that within two minutes the gentleman next to me is crying with laughter into his Charles Tyrwhitt tie.
The third West End outing for Mischief Theatre, the production company responsible for The Play That Goes Wrong and Peter Pan Goes Wrong, The Comedy About a Bank Robbery is a cathartic amalgamation of sharp wordplay, unexpected physical comedy, and some outstanding vocal work. The impressive ensemble cast manage to effortlessly hold the audience’s attention throughout a plot that stretches the boundaries of farcicality, as they tell the story of a bank robbery that takes place in a particularly criminal district of Minneapolis.
Our alliance as the audience is with the character of Sam, a young pickpocket who finds himself embroiled in a criminal ring after being discovered in the wrong place at the wrong time (more specifically, he is discovered in the apartment of a girl by her felon of an ex-boyfriend, in a side-splittingly funny scene that adeptly combines physical comedy with an excellent use of props and staging). Sam, played by Steffan Lloyd-Evans, has an endearingly bumbling energy that will win your heart – for Cherwell’s interview with Steffan please consult the Culture subsection – and the rest of the cast are equally impressive, each one displaying a powerful comic range throughout, as well as some outstanding vocal work.
Equally worthy of credit are the backstage team, whose work in bringing the set to life is truly breath-taking. We are transported from a prison, to a city bank, to an upmarket apartment in a matter of seconds, and a lot of the gags rely on the set and the props for effect. At various intervals, we witness characters being swallowed by retractable double beds, hanging off office chairs that are attached to the ceiling, and trapezing through a ventilation system that frames the entire stage, and I would struggle to think of a play in which the set is so integral to the enjoyment of the production. It is a credit to Mischief Theatre that the creative originality that defines the script extends to all aspects of the production, including the staging, direction, and musical accompaniment.
While the storyline may seem slightly absurd at times, the talented cast manage to inject it with a convincing sense of vitality, which manages to keep the narrative afloat. Miles Yekinni is particularly funny as Cooper, and Tania Mathurin’s powerful singing voice is greatly effective at helping to establish the swinging 1950s setting. Occasionally some of the jokes are pushed too far – motifs are sometimes repeated three times when twice would have been enough – but for the most part the humour is far more hit than miss, and the jokes that land really do land. At least half the audience have had quantifiable hysterics by the time the cast are taking their bows, and the standing ovation is pretty much all-encompassing.
“The storyline may seem slightly absurd at times, but the talented cast inject it with a convincing sense of vitality”
All in all, The Comedy About a Bank Robbery represents yet another hit for Mischief Theatre. The script writers – Lewis, Sayer, and Shields – have mastered a unique comic voice that combines sharp wordplay with farcical absurdity, somewhere between One Man, Two Guvnors and a Monty Python sketch, and the cast and creative team carry the story with confidence. I can finally understand why the audience is so agog with serious-looking faces laughing uncontrollably at an unexpected pun – in times like this, sometimes a bit of cathartic silliness is exactly what you need. For a night of guaranteed laughter, you can’t do much better than this carefully crafted comic concoction.
The Comedy About a Bank Robbery runs until April 2018 at London’s Criterion Theatre.