Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘The Comedy About A Bank Robbery’, which is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre until Saturday 8th September.
Having hilariously mauled the ‘Who-Dun-It’ and ‘Panto’, Mischief Theatre has now sunk its claws into crime. ‘The Comedy About A Bank Robbery’ will scarcely disturb the trade descriptions act. It does exactly what it says on the tin but with two provisos; it’s funnier and cleverer than you could possibly image.
There are exceptionally protracted and increasingly corny word-play pun routines that would leave the Marx Brothers green with envy … and left last night’s Birmingham audience pleading for mercy.
There is a wonderfully inventive fight sequence (performed solo by the multi-roled George Hannigan) in which both combatants are played by the same man who, effectively, beats himself to a pulp. Every punch gets a laugh.
And the piece de resistance is a Hitchcockian overhead scene in which the (by now helpless) audience watches an office scene from an aerial perspective with the actors, furniture and props adhered to a vertical wall like Spiderman with a tube of suspect Super Glue. It’s breath-taking stuff. Which is tricky, because you really need to breathe deeply to cope with the compulsive laughter.
And, yes, there is a plot too – loosely stringing all these remarkable set pieces together.
The show opens with a jail break which is successful despite it’s complete incompetence because literally everybody is in on it – including the prison governor. So, it doesn’t matter that the driver of the getaway car can’t drive.
The escaped convicts are planning a diamond heist from a bank vault that has more security than the baddie’s lair in a James Bond movie. So, the gang has to lower themselves in by rope to avoid activating the floor alarms. That is, of course, a stonking great cliché; made even more cliched by the snoring, nodding guard. But the company then builds and builds on the joke by singing a lullaby to send him back to sleep – as they nab the gem.
And that’s the nub of the success of this show. The writers lovingly embrace the obvious traditional elements of farce, but then push the boundaries to breaking point. Slamming doors, trouser-less men and Shakespearian mistaken identities abound (despite miss-matching skin colour). But they are all capped by several extra layers of outrageously overplayed invention. Brian Rix would have watched in wonder.
There are some classic characters who are blessed with outstanding performances. Julia Frith is quite stunning as the shiny, red-head, feme fatale Caprice Freeboys; a con-woman of the highest order who fleeces her many admirers in a twinkling and makes the most of the fact that Daddy is manager of the bank where the enormous diamond is kept.
There’s an endless bedroom charades scene – complete with a folding bed with a mind of its own – in which she mimes her way out of the triple embarrassment of having three men in her hotel room at the same time. The routine is so protracted, a lesser company would trim it. But Mischief Theatre don’t go over the top by halves – and it’s the audience who surrenders first.
Running through the show is a lively American1950s Do-Wap musical score and some ridiculous visual jokes involving moustaches of varying proportions. And I loved the running glasses gag which suggests that if anyone in a position of authority removes their specs, they must be lying. It’s a simple one-liner, early in the show, that reaps and reaps mounting rewards.
Like all the very best farces, the cast of nine make a physically daring and demanding show look so easy. It’s so slick, what could possibly go wrong?
Presumably the five understudies cover all the casualties.
If you have any sense of humour at all, this is a show not to be missed. And there are plenty of opportunities. The Birmingham provincial premiere is followed by a 23-city tour.