Mischief Theatre, the powerhouse behind The Play That Goes Wrong and Peter Pan Goes Wrong, are fast becoming a cultural phenomenon. There is something decidedly old-fashioned in their farcical mixture of clowning, slapstick and punning. Their latest smash, opening directly in the West End, is no exception – The Comedy About A Bank Robbery feels the closest we will ever get to a live Naked Gun. Yet this is also new territory for the company – whereas their previous output were parodies of genres (pantomime, murder mystery plays) which gradually unravelled into catastrophe, the genre drawn upon by The Comedy About A Bank Robbery is itself parody. For all its invention and high-concept hijinx, The Comedy About A Bank Robbery might be Mischief’s most traditional fare.
Whilst The Comedy About A Bank Robbery abandons the tried-and-tested Goes Wrong formula, that is not to say it is without Mischief’s signature pratfalls and knockabouts. In one particularly memorable sequence, unfortunate bank clerk Warren Slax (Mark Hammersley) is beaten senseless in a demonstration by his superior in which blunt implement hurts the most. But this move into new territory for the company shifts the focus onto its writing, staging and acting – with somewhat inconsistent results.
Like any farce, this production takes a while to rev its engine and the initial writing feels weaker as a result. An extended comic confusion between “Robin Freboys” and “robbing three boys” outstays its welcome, and the wit of the script’s wordplay can be inconsistent. These are, however, perils of the genre – keeping the audience’s attention as the stage is set for the slapstick carnage of the second half. The script does show evidence of a precise, almost Darwinian craft – the running gags which survive are thankfully those which land the strongest, and these ferment into fruitful comic sequences which force fits of laughter over the course of the two hour runtime. This is a testament to Mischief’s willingness to continually test and evolve their material – and this knock-on domino effect, where one good gag leads to another, is the foundation of farce. Mischief seem to have absorbed this principle into their writing process itself.
The staging is slickness itself, but also draws inspiration from the Criterion’s previous resident production – Patrick Barlow’s The 39 Steps – in emulating its irreverent and inventive style. Alongside cartoonishly sized sets, cops and criminals drive in high-speed car chases in laundry baskets and an expanding table of paperwork gives the production one of its finest moments of observational genre humour. However, for all these low-tech innovations, this is a visually spectacular show. One sequence in which Hammersley and Sean Kearns (as corpulent bank manager Robin Freeboys) hang in birds-eye view on a vertical set sees the company at its most dazzlingly inventive in exhausting the comic possibilities of a visual gag.
Speaking of exhaustion, this cast has potentially the most stunning stamina of any on the West End, and all pull off their roles with aplomb. Steffan Lloyd-Evans shines as shapeshifting Sam Monaghan, and a scene where he struggles to sneak out of a room where his girlfriend and her violent criminal of an ex-boyfriend are rolling around on the bed, by impersonating her father and then the handyman, has to be seen to be believed. You can see why this role was originated by Mischief’s Dave Hearn – both excel at a style of clowning where the actor and the audience acknowledge the absurdity of it all. But the show is utterly stolen by Miles Yekkini as the heist’s literal-minded and dim-witted getaway driver Neil Cooper. Yekkini’s creation is a work of comic genius, and the production is frankly unimaginable without him. Everything he does is without any self-awareness of its stupidity, and he manages to be both entertaining and utterly endearing. His reaction to dropping explosives accidentally out of the window of a twenty-storey apartment block is worth the entry price alone.
The Comedy About A Bank Robbery is not without its flaws, but it is as perfect a comedy as you will see in the West End. Call it a diamond in the rough. I do not doubt it will run forever.