THE FIRST thing you notice when entering the auditorium at the Wolverhampton Grand, are the giant chairs either side of the stage. They are huge versions of those classroom chairs we all knew so well – Formica the colour of beech wood, stretched over a tubular metal frame.
They set the memory cells floating back to early schooldays and how big everything seemed to our tiny eyes, from the wheels on the bus to the teacher’s desk and the omnipresent hamster cage.
This is clever scene setting by designer Fly Davis and director Kirsty Patrick Ward adds to this by opting to have the fairly lengthy first scene played on the apron, against a closed curtain – with a simple ‘Bloomfield School’ sign displayed to tell us where we are.
It’s here we first meet our ‘famous five’ who are actually four in years – we are going to follow through their schooldays to double digits and finally becoming grown-ups – or as the title states and the action identifies ‘groan’ ups.
Yolanda Ovide, Dharmesh Patel, Lauren Samuels, Daniel Abbott and Matt Cavendish – aka Moon, Spencer, Katie, Archie and Simon literally hit the stage running through the stalls and onto the stage. It’s here the size of those two giant classroom chairs put early schooldays into perspective.
So too does the chant of “What did you do the weekend?” as each child in turn bids to outdo the rest in telling what they and their parents got up to – right down to the innocent relating of listening to parental sexual activities.
When the curtain finally goes up, we enter the classroom where everything is still big but not as colossal as the first chairs and yes, there is the hamster cage. From here on in, every scene takes us one step further as our famous five grow bigger and the furniture gets smaller.
Act Two is the Bloomfield High School reunion. Now the chairs are too small for grown ups to sit in. What hasn’t changed is the way Moon, Spencer, Katie, Archie and Simon relate to each other. Old love is rekindled as is rivalry and bullying.
Ovide’s Moon is as bossy, arrogant and vulnerable as she was when we first met her – but add lovable to that too. Samuels’ Katie still worries about everything, Abbott’s Archie is still in denial of his sexuality but his precociousness has been replaced with the art of social management.
Patel’s Spencer has graduated from class jester to jokesy pet shop owner and Cavendish’s Simon bears the scars of being the butt of every classroom prank and joke.
Simon brings with him long-legged escort Chemise who he tries to pass off as his glamorous partner. Jamie Birkett puts in a scene stealing performance as Chemise – but then she does have some great lines.
Mischief Theatre writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields have become legendary for their modern twist on plays that go wrong, winning an Olivier Award along the way – but with Groan Ups they have added a whole new dimension to their scripting. They belie the myth that schooldays are the happiest days of our lives. Happy days for some yes but for most it’s an emotional battleground – a melting pot we all get thrown into and when we come out we are of course wiser – that is the purpose of the academic exercise after all.
There are moments in this production when you want to reach out to cuddle and comfort the kids and others that make you cringe with embarrassment. There are also times of pure joy and others of true tragedy.
Laughter and tears – who could ask for anything more from a good night out at the theatre?
Groan Ups runs until Saturday, November 13. Click here for times, tickets and more information.