This 1950’s comedy caper delivers a riot of laughs and buckets of energy, all in the midst of a convoluted diamond heist.

The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society – the fictional group of hapless actors who attempt to put on doomed productions in The Play that Goes Wrong, Peter Pan Goes Wrong and A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong – would no doubt have cocked up such a technically demanding show to disastrous proportions. However, in the hands of the supremely talented trio Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields and Henry Lewis (the creative team behind Mischief Theatre), The Comedy About A Bank Robbery maintains the slapstick nature of its preceding shows while delivering a slick production of methodical wonderment through extravagant sets, changeovers and impish physical comedy.

As the team’s first major foray into a “real life” world, without the framework of hapless Am Dram divas breaking the fourth wall with a sledgehammer, it must have been a worry that some of its forerunners charms would be lost in translation. Although this could be argued here, the audience is along for the ride nonetheless, transported back to 1958 Minneapolis where Mitch Ruscitti (Liam Jeavons) breaks out of prison in order to steal a valuable diamond stored in Minneapolis City Bank, owned by the marvellously austere Robin Freeboys (a tremendous Damian Lynch).

In all honesty, the opening half is such an elaborate setup of oddball characters and extensive love triangles that it is difficult to keep up with the frantic pace. With the storyline significantly lacking, there is more than enough scope for ad-libbing or breaking of the fourth wall that the creative team have become noted for. Ultimately, they are hoisted by their own petard as the choreography, ballet-like in its excellence, is so precise that there may not be wiggle room for such japes. However, with a plot this farcical in its nature, a wink or nod at the audience from time to time would negate everything being played totally straight.

In terms of touching points, the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin’s clowning presence can be felt throughout the production, right down to some startlingly innovative musical numbers. Further allusions are made to 1950’s B Movies and Cold War era nostalgia, in the lingo and fashion styles as much as the direct references to the time period and are littered throughout. It provides fun and creates an almost jukebox time capsule for the events to unfold in. The wordplay humour, nailed frequently, is pure Two Ronnies or Abbott and Costello. The name Freeboys itself is an innuendo that is flogged to within an inch of its life in one sequence, and although at times feels a tad contrived and forced, the back and forth is a joy to watch. As they say, it’s the old ones that are the best ones.  

Liam Jeavons, Julia Frith, Seán Carey

Liam Jeavons, Julia Frith & Seán Carey (image courtesy of Robert Day)

Whether it is through using a rolling desk chair and torches to emulate a motorcycle chase, or Action Men replicating characters leaping from a tall building, it is the innovative set design and how the actors interact with it that is truly mesmerising. It does not necessarily draw guffaws from an audience, but humour tinged respectful chuckles at the skill and imagination on display. Health and Safety would surely have to be on standby for the scenes where actors abseil down from the ceiling to crack a safe in mid-air or even for an Inception-like gravity-defying sequence when our anti-heroes are crawling through an air vent to reach the vault containing the McGuffin diamond. The above sequences take place in a genuinely electrifying second half, that picks up on the momentum generated earlier and delivers acts and stunts of such high quality it leaves you questioning “how did they do that?!”

In order to successfully pull off such daring set pieces, an energetic and exuberant cast is required and boy do we have one. Special mentions to David Coomber as the flamboyantly hapless accomplice Neil Cooper, who revels in his Am Dram background to assist in his master of disguise persona. At one stage, he happily proclaims, “I was the Pig in Pygmalion!” which will have gone down well with thespians everywhere. Furthermore, a nod to Jon Trenchard as the Jack Lemmon-esque Warren Slax, a down on his luck clerk in the bank where the action takes places. However, a stand out is newcomer Sean Carey as Sam Mongahan, a streetwise grafter who finds himself out of his comfort zone after falling in love with a woman who is more than his match. Carey exudes the charisma and drive required for such a production, with one daring piece of physical comedy involving him hanging off a Murphy Bed whilst trying to avoid his lover’s former partner.

All in all, this is an action-packed fun-filled bonanza of batshit proportions. The Mischief Boys move away from their winning formula to wreck more havoc, yet are hampered slightly by working within more narrow parameters. However, superb set design and a willing cast make this nod to the physical comedy masters of yesteryear make this a ripping good watch, daddy-o.

 

 

★★★★☆

The Comedy About A Bank Robbery runs at Birmingham Repertory Theatre until 8 September 2018, as part of a national tour. For further information, please visit the company website.