They are back ladies and gentlemen. Exploding into the West End with The Play That Goes Wrong in 2014, Mischief Theatre have been the source of much mirth and merriment since then. Now they unveil their third play in three years, and the first in their arsenal of full productions not to fall back on a known entity: a crazy, crime caper known as The Comedy About A Bank Robbery. It’s good. Very, very good.
Written by Henry Lewis, Henry Shields and Jonathan Sayer, the show is mostly a homage to classic 1950s movies than anything else, as the titular robbery doesn’t appear until halfway through the second half. Shields is jailbird Mitch Ruscitti, his eyes set on the Maguvin Diamond at Minneapolis City Bank, which Lewis’s Robin Freeboys manages. Along for the ride are hapless ex-policeman Cooper (Greg Tannahill), lovestruck pickpocket Sam (Dave Hearn) and Ruscitti’s girlfriend Caprice (Charlie Russell), who also happens to be Freeboys’s daughter.
It’s great to see Mischief bringing the same creative energy they used in Lights! Camera! Improvise! to the front – their riffing on traditional movie tropes and dialogue is always a joy to behold. Thanks to a bigger budget, every set piece has been ramped up in terms of the visual spectacle, and the show comes close to resembling another recent Criterion production, The 39 Steps. The jokes fly thick and fast, with some sequences sticking more than others; a particular highlight is Lewis demonstrating how many ways he can knock out his 67-year-old intern (Sayer), showcasing expert timing and precision from both actors. The dialogue is suitably witty, with wordplay and puns aplenty.
Mark Bell is one of the best directors working today, and here he gets to flex his creative chops even further than before. Some moments really pop on the stage: a daring jailbreak sequence, a climactic car chase and the bank robbery itself, which surely will be remembered not only for its brazen hilarity, but for some exceptional stunt work. This is all nothing compared to Bell’s coup de grâce – the most breathtaking use of depth perception in the history of theatre. I won’t spoil anything but let’s just say my gasp was very audible. The cast are universally outstanding, there is not one false note amongst them. Mischief houses the best pool of character actors working in London, and here their skills are used to their maximum. Everyone is incredibly on point, with ultra-convincing accents and a level of physical commitment unseen in any current West End show.
We must be fair though – where The Comedy About A Bank Robbery excels in great creative stagecraft, the same level of expertise doesn’t show in the narrative. The story is fairly run-of-the-mill, and though there are attempts to develop our stock characters (moreso than in any Goes Wrong production), we still lack a centre and focus to make us care more than we do. It’s that old saying of ‘style over substance’ and unfortunately it rings true here at times. The stage can be a little busy and too many good ideas are wanting to be shown, which leaves The Comedy About A Bank Robbery slightly overstuffed and a little tonally confused. There’s also some odd musical numbers which, although ably performed, belong in a different show.
It is always a joy to see an original concept play the West End. Mischief Theatre have created their most ambitious project yet, a chaotic masterpiece that shows off the phenomenal acting talent they have on board. It’s the funniest show in London since, well, The Play That Goes Wrong.
The Comedy About A Bank Robbery is playing at the Criterion Theatre. For more information and tickets, see The Comedy About A Bank Robbery website. Photo: Darren Bell