Mischief Theatre is taking over the world. The Play That Goes Wrong is into its sixth year at the Duchess Theatre in London, The Comedy about a Bank Robbery is keeping it company at the Criterion, and the team’s TV spin-off – The Goes Wrong Show – is getting rave reviews on BBC One. Not bad for a troupe that were performing above a pub only eight years ago.
And for the next trick, Mischief Theatre is opening its latest production in its year-long residency at the West End’s Vaudeville Theatre, which began with the poorly-received Groan Ups. Magic Goes Wrong is running until May, and the title tells you pretty much everything you need to know.
Regular writing team Henry Shields, Henry Lewis and Jonathan Sayer are joined by legendary American magicians Penn and Teller – stars of the hit ITV show Fool Us. Adam Meggido – co-creator of Showstopper! The Improvised Musical – directs, Will Bowen designs, and Ben Hart is the show’s magic consultant. Bizarrely, Hollywood big shot JJ Abrams is also involved as a co-producer.
But can these comedy giants pull off the same trick once again? Are the critics left laughing by Mischief Theatre and its inept illusions? Or does the company fail to pull a rabbit out of the hat?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews…
Mischief Theatre’s first foray into the Vaudeville season – Groan Ups – was something of a critical catastrophe. The company is on firmer, funnier and more familiar ground now, with the next instalment of its Goes Wrong format. However, for some critics, the new show isn’t particularly exciting.
“Magic Goes Wrong consists of a series of tricks and sketches, featuring an array of familiar magician types,” explains Natasha Tripney (The Stage ★★★). But, although “there are some genuinely impressive individual moments” as these tricks descend into chaos, the show “never genuinely dazzles or amazes.”
It is “a show that does exactly what it says on the tin,” says Alex Wood (WhatsOnStage ★★★). “Those who love the ‘Goes Wrong’ brand will have a pleasant number of laughs to keep the mirth coming, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that, for a large portion of the run-time, Mischief may have missed a trick.”
That there’s no real character development, that the structure is too episodic and the show too long are frequent frustrations. “It’s funny… in bits” but “breaks no new ground,” according to Robert Gore-Langton (Mail on Sunday ★★★), while for Nick Curtis (Evening Standard ★★★), it’s just “the same Mischief mix of shouty comedy, slapstick and humiliation.”
There are more enthusiastic reviews. Dominic Maxwell (Times ★★★★) finds the entire enterprise “gloriously silly”, Mark Shenton (London Theatre ★★★★) loves the “delightfully and intentionally misfiring premise”, and Thea Jacobs (The Sun ★★★★★) reckons she will be “laughing into next week.” Most critics concur with Andrzej Lukowski (TimeOut ★★★), though.
“It’s… okay,” he writes. “Mischief are fundamentally operating within their comfort zone. If you enjoy watching flustered English people get more flustered as stuff goes wrong – and let’s be clear, that is literally their entire shtick – then Magic Goes Wrong sees them pull the trick off once again.”
In among the silliness and slapstick, though – the terrible tricks and obvious stooges – creative collaborators Penn and Teller, along with magic consultant Ben Hart, have slipped in some actual stunts. And, when they go right, they are really quite cool.
Penn, Teller and Hart “have trained the cast so that they can really perform the sometimes spectacular tricks even when their characters supposedly can’t,” explains Maxwell. “Within the four-square premise the level of invention and precision in this slapstick is often staggering.”
“Many of the illusions remain deeply impressive even when exposed,” agrees Curtis. Of particular note are tricks involving a water tank – “truly amazing”, according to Jacobs – and a gory twist on the sawing-someone-in-half routine that “works brilliantly” according to Veronica Lee (TheArtsDesk ★★★).
A couple of genuine magicians even make an appearance – David Copperfield and Derren Brown pop-up via video – but their inclusion in the illusions gets a mixed reception. They are “jarring” for Wood and “lame” for Gore-Langton, but for Brian Logan (Guardian ★★★) they are “very amusing.”
There’s significantly less satisfaction with Nancy Zamit and Bryony Corrigan’s roles – those of scantily-clad sidekicks Bär and Spitzmaus. “While the show takes some gentle swipes at the fact that women in magic are so often relegated to playing mute, smiling sidekicks in sparkly tights, the show does not really tackle or challenge this in any satisfying way,” complains Tripney.
Mischief Theatre’s shows have always revolved around the same core cast members – writers Sayer, Lewis and Shields, plus an assemblage of prat-falling, pant-dropping actors. Here, all three star again, alongside Zamit, Corrigan, Roxy Faridany and Dave Hearn. And most critics applaud their enthusiasm.
The show is “kept buoyant” by their “unabashed physicality” and their “total investment in the chaos created”, writes Shenton, while Logan lauds their “fine” comic and slapstick skills and Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph ★★★★) commends “everyone, on-stage and (manifestly) off” who work “their socks off to keep things continually derailing on time.”
Shields and Lewis are particularly praised. Shields’ Sophisticato – the host of the evening – is “like Paul Daniels crossed with John Cleese” according to Patrick Marmion (Daily Mail ★★★★), while Wood lauds Lewis’ “luminous presence as the wise-cracking Mind Mangler, relying on some whip-sharp improvisation to bring the house down when not stumbling through a ramshackle mind-reading routine.”
Most admired, though, is Hearn. He plays Criss Angel copycat Blade, a deadly serious daredevil who can’t stop cutting himself. He’s “like a deranged Tom Cruise, only taller” according to Marmion, while for Cavendish he’s “a swaggering hymn to machismo subject to multiple inventive impalements”, and “the most enjoyably ouch-inducing of the bunch.”
It’s probably exactly the show that you are expecting, if you are familiar with Mischief Theatre’s ever-expanding canon of Goes Wrong productions – a string of painful prestidigitators and atrocious acts, with a sprinkling of actual illusion thrown in as well. For some critics, that is easily enough for an entertaining night out, but for others the formula is beginning to feel a bit too familiar.
A few four-star reviews and one five-star write-up in The Sun are not quite enough to hide the horde of three-star ratings underneath. A far better effort than the groan-inducing Groan Ups, but far from wizard nonetheless.