The potential for things going wrong is a fundamental part of any magic act. The best magicians use it to their advantage; introducing the possibility that a trick may have gone catastrophically awry makes the big reveal more satisfying.
So, it makes sense that Mischief Theatre’s latest show – its second in a year-long residency at the Vaudeville Theatre after ambitious new comedy Groan Ups – would be a magic show. It’s a logical extension of the Mischief brand. After all, the kind of meticulously engineered slapstick on which the company has built its name has a lot in common with magic in terms of the skills required.
The group is on an incredible run. It has two other shows playing in the West End, another on a UK tour, plus a version of the show that started it all, The Play That Goes Wrong, running Off Broadway. The six-part Goes Wrong Show can be seen on the BBC. Is it possible for it to sustain that streak without stretching itself too thin?
This new show sees Mischief returning to the familiar Goes Wrong format. Only this time with magic tricks. As an idea, it’s not all that original – performers from Tommy Cooper to Nick Mohammed’s Mr Swallow have milked laughs from similar material for decades – but the Mischief team has an ace up its sleeve in the form of Penn and Teller, the legendary American magic duo behind hit show Fool Us. Having taken a shine to Mischief after seeing The Play That Goes Wrong in New York, the pair have come on board as co-writers. The magicians, who first came to the attention of British audiences on The Unpleasant World of Penn and Teller on Channel 4 in the 1990s, have always made an apparent willingness to show the workings of their illusions part of their act, but this show marks the first time they have shared their secrets with other creatives.
However, while fans will no doubt get a kick from the replication of Penn and Teller’s notoriously gory buzz-saw-and-blood-splatter version of sawing a woman in half, there’s surprisingly little of their subversive energy on display.
Sophisticato (played by company co-founder Henry Shields) is hosting a charity fundraiser for Disasters in Magic, raising money for magicians killed and maimed in the service of their art. He’s also grappling with angst resulting from the recent death of his father, also a magician, and the worry that he is not good enough to wield his late dad’s wand.
Magic Goes Wrong consists of a series of tricks and sketches, featuring an array of familiar magician types. Henry Lewis plays mentalist the Mind Mangler, who claims to have heightened senses and to be able to deduce someone’s occupation from a sniff of their jacket, while Dave Hearn plays a Criss Angel-alike called the Blade, who seems compelled to keep ripping off his shirt. A lot of fun is had at their expense. Their routines implode. Their tricks fall flat. Jonathan Sayer adds to the chaos as the Mind Mangler’s incompetent stooge (and flatmate) Mickey.
Alongside them, Nancy Zamit and Bryony Corrigan play German duo Bär and Spitzmaus, who may also possibly be Sophisticato’s half-siblings. 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.
That’s not to diminish their skill as comic performers – every pratfall and handspring is perfectly timed, Corrigan can coil her body into a tiny Perspex box, while Zamit performs an impressive quick-change routine – it just feels like an opportunity missed. It doesn’t help that they’re saddled with tired comedy foreigner shtick and that a lot of the jokes hinge on Zamit’s character not being able to speak English.
Mischief’s early shows worked through a process of carefully calibrated build-up and pay off, an escalation of chaos. The episodic magic show format makes that harder to achieve. Nor is there room for anything resembling character development. Sophisticato’s daddy issues feel like garnish, and the Mind Mangler’s fractious relationship with Mickey is similarly thin.
The performances go some way to compensate for this. Lewis proves adept at audience interaction and there’s pleasure to be taken in Shields’ grim resignation as a dove routine ends in carnage, or the way Hearn’s Blade succumbs to injury after injury while doggedly continuing to perform.
Thanks to the efforts of magic consultant Ben Hart and director Adam Meggido, not to mention the skill of the performers, there are some genuinely impressive individual moments – a water tank stunt stands out – and there are amusing video cameos from Derren Brown and David Copperfield. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that Penn and Teller left unchecked would have taken certain routines to even greater extremes. And, while it’s often funny, it never genuinely dazzles or amazes in the way that the best magic shows can.
But, though it doesn’t hit the highs of some previous Mischief outings, it remains a solidly entertaining show, from a company evidently keen to test itself, and, for once, there are a few sweet instances where everything goes right.