Lately there has been a mini-invasion of London’s West End by the ever-expanding Mischief Theatre. Their breakthrough production, The Play that Goes Wrong, about a group of am-drams ineptly tackling an Agatha Christie-type thriller, is now in its sixth year at the Duchess Theatre and has also enjoyed a decent run on Broadway. At the Criterion, audiences are currently keeping the seats warm with The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, and the group is getting excellent reviews for The Goes Wrong Show on the BBC.
True, they came a bit of a cropper recently with Groan Ups (also at the Vaudeville), but I’m delighted to report they’ve redeemed themselves with Magic Goes Wrong. It’s the perfect target for them: the world of stage magic and its incipient hazards.
Created by Mischief Theatre’s forever piss-taking team under the guidance of Penn and Teller – already legends-in-their-lifetime – the setting is a live, televised fundraiser for a Disasters of Magic charity that raises money for those unfortunate magicians and their hapless assistants whose sorry fate was to be maimed or killed while performing dangerous illusions that went disastrously wrong – such as sawing a woman in half. Or a Houdini-like escapologist unable to free himself from a locked water tank. You get the picture.
It’s obvious from the get-go that there isn’t a professional magician on stage. And although the show does, occasionally, proffer an illusion that actually goes right, most of the tricks do not. So instead of gasping in awe and wonderment the way one might with David Copperfield or Derren Brown (both of whom make token video appearances), it’s the non-stop laughter that gives the evening its clout.
With the exception of the late, great Tommy Cooper, most magicians aren’t funny. Not a problem here as team Mischief is made up of seriously funny people.
Take Henry Shields as the fundraiser’s master of ceremonies. He’s brilliant as a would-be debonair who calls himself Mr Sophistico and whose late father was also a magician who died tragically when a pile of his props fell and crushed the life out of him.
All the traditional doves in Sophistico’s signature act are dead, and further calamity befalls him when his opening illusion, “Heretic Burned at the Stake,” goes calamitously awry.
Then there’s Henry Lewis as an over-confident, underwhelming mentalist who calls himself the Mind Mangler and boasts, among numerous other accomplishments, that he can “taste” people’s names and “smell” their job descriptions. Lewis inhabits the role with such skill and comic timing, he transforms the most bogus act of mind-reading into guffaws of laughter. Now that’s what I call real magic!
Showiest of all is David Hearn as the caricaturally butch Blade, an alpha male prone to accidental skin piercing and impalement. Hearn endearingly plays him with a kind of wimpish machismo that’s hard to resist.
Obligatory to most magicians is the attractive female assistant, over-represented on this otherwise delightful occasion by a thickly (German) accented, skimpily dressed Bryony Corrigan and the less svelte Nancy Zamit. A little of them goes a long way.
Though there isn’t a trick or illusion in Magic Goes Wrong you haven’t seen many times before (that’s the whole point of the show), the slapstick knockabout gags, double entendres and blatant use of multiple stooges (all personified by Jonathan Sayer) keep this potpourri of magician clichés percolating wittily right from the start.
Written by Penn and Teller in conjunction with several members of the Mischief Theatre company, the evening ends on a slightly melancholic note, making the point that a magician’s life isn’t always a happy one. Fortunately, as directed by Adam Meggido in consultation with professional illusionist Ben Hart, on this happy occasion, it most certainly is.