After their greatly successful improvisation show last Summer, multi-awarded comedy company Mischief Theatre return to Cardiff with a piece more traditional in genre and structure, whose plot works off a series of well-known tropes but plays with them and reinterprets them in inventive ways. The Comedy About A Bank Robbery is, as stated in the title, a take on the idea of the criminal enterprise gone wrong, which will be familiar to any audience from a variety of incarnations both literary, on the stage, and on the screen – many of which are directly referenced by the play itself. The familiarity of the trope, and of many of the characters, which appear at first to be little more than stereotypes – the corrupt bank director, the overworked FBI agent, the small-time crook, the serial seductress, the hardboiled criminal – does not prevent the play, however, from managing to surprise its audience. This is due first and foremost to a writing that is of excellent standard, tightly knit and keeping up a rapid, almost frantic pace without almost ever slowing down. At the same time, the writing is also patient, building a personality to characters that appeared at first very thin and making it possible to genuinely care for them, to the point of generating actual commitment to what is objectively a not very substantial main plotline. Some jokes are built throughout the whole duration of the play, disseminated in the early scenes where they appear almost pointless only to be delivered to full fruition towards the end (most notably, a recurrent concern with seagulls). The strength of the writing certainly contributes a great deal to the strength of the play overall, although praise is due to the cast as a whole for managing to keep pace with it.
Something also very refreshing in this production is the kind of humour it adopts. While a lot of the humour is rather physical, we are for once faced with that rarest of beasts, slapstick done right: with thought and consideration, and without indulging too much the temptation of going for an easy, vulgar joke. This is compounded by a great deal of nonsense and wordplay, which is drawn from a more typically British tradition; the two work very well together, with some moments that would not be out-of-place in a Monty Python work. Again, much of the credit goes to a cast that manages to maintain its collective performance lively and quick-paced without appearing rushed, and to deliver even the most absurd of scenes with admirable seriousness. There are some moments of meta-theatre and the occasional breaking of the fourth wall, but these are not so frequent as to be annoying, and overall they work well with a production that is to some extent meta-dramatic by its own nature.
A particular mention must be made of the stage design, which is a truly impressive feat of creativity, managing to reproduce on stage a variety of scenes and situations that one would be hard pressed to imagine as possible to recreate outside of screen. The play is defiant of stage limitations, and ingenious in its solutions while still being tongue-in-cheek about them – a particular scene with an aerial view of the bank director’s office, as the robbers are sneaking through the air conditioning vents, is made possible by an extremely bold trick of stage setting, which it then proceeds to thoroughly mock; this is probably the most remarkable example, but there are others, contributing to the sense that, in spite of the obviousness of the plot, at every new scene one does not quite know what to expect next.
The greatest measure of the success of a comedy is perhaps its ability to make its audience laugh. In this, there is no doubt that The Comedy About A Bank Robberysucceeded; but praise is due for the fact that it did so in a mostly elegant, quirky, clever, well-delivered way, using even physical humour with a certain amused grace. This is not often found in contemporary comedy, and it is perhaps to be hoped that in the future we will see more works like this, lighthearted and aiming to amuse, but also capable of rethinking the tropes and building blocks of their own genres to deliver something fresh and surprising. For the moment, Mischief Theatre confirm themselves to be a presence to be reckoned with in the contemporary comedy scene.
Until October 13, New Theatre, Cardiff
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