Magic Goes Wrong at Vaudeville Theatre: If you’ve come for the spectacle of illusion, you’re likely going to be disappointed
It just makes you wish the content in the rest of it was darker and closer to the bone than it really is; with such a monopoly in the West End, maybe Mischief could consider pushing things further in their next iteration.
The most impressive magic trick lands right at the end of Magic Goes Wrong. “Hi there”, says performer Henry Lewis, “we’re Mischief Theatre, and if you enjoyed this you should check out our other shows The Play That Goes Wrong and The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, which are just round the corner. You can also catch the Goes Wrong Show at 8:30pm every Friday night on BBC1”. It is truly sorcery how fast Mischief Theatre have managed to dominate the West End, especially when their Monty-Python-meets-Noises-Off slapstick hijinks have been considered out-of-fashion for decades now.
But the theatre is full, and the crowd is loving it; the woman beside me is either very drunk or afflicted by the same psychological condition as Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, such is the omnipresence of her unrestrained cackling. The chat in the upstairs bar (which serves some mysterious, alluring can of Guinness that self-foams) is glowingly positive.
Developed in tandem with legendary entertainers Penn & Teller, Magic Goes Wrong is formed around the conceit of the ‘Disasters in Magic Charity Fundraiser’ – a low-budget TV variety show aimed at raising money for a cause close to its host’s heart. Sophisticato’s (Henry Shields) father, likewise named, has recently died after being crushed by a large collection of magical memorabilia, and his son (as well as possible illegitimate German daughters) have taken it upon themselves to prevent future such disasters.
Featuring in this less-than-stellar line-up are fearless but talentless stuntman The Blade (Dave Hearn), also talentless mind reader The Mind Mangler (Henry Lewis), and peculiar European dance duo Spitzmaus and Bear (Nancy Zamit and Bryony Corrigan respectively). Other characters, usually conjugally related to the deceased Sophisticato, hop in and out of the narrative, but the thrust of the show is watching these three acts absolutely fail to deliver on their salacious promises.
Lights break, doves frazzle in the spotlights, and people are dismembered – you know the score – and it’s mostly very funny. That said, it does now all feel a bit routine – the Goes Wrong thing, I mean. In fact, I’ve scribbled several times in my notebook that the actual jokes in the show were far funnier than the physical comedy (worth noting here that if the critical reception to Mischief’s Groan Ups is anything to go by, perhaps dramedy isn’t the right direction). Although the audience is lapping up every little bit of slapstick, I did wonder how much mileage really was left in the ‘goes wrong’ conceit.
Magic Goes Wrong thankfully leans more towards Bank Robbery than Play. The former show possesses a much defter grasp of language and comedy and features more risqué content for a mostly adult audience than its famous sibling. As an example, Magic ends its first act on a… suffice to say bold moment that goes far beyond anything that the company has done before, and it really works. It just makes you wish the content in the rest of it was darker and closer to the bone than it really is; with such a monopoly in the West End, maybe Mischief could consider pushing things further in their next iteration. Perhaps it’s Penn & Teller’s impact on the show, but it definitely feels like it’s a step in the right direction.
Speaking of Penn & Teller, there is, to my surprise, a bit of actual magic in the show – characters vanishing and appearing out of thin air, levitation, etc. etc. But, if you’ve come for the spectacle of illusion, you’re likely going to be disappointed. Most of the tricks are things we’re used to seeing, and at several points in the show it is (unintentionally) clear how things are being done. These actors are not professional magicians, that much is for sure. There is also no shortage of hilarious interactions with the audience, but after a few years of experience I’m 90% sure that the main ones are all plants. Either that or the improv skills of these people are razor sharp.
In sum, then, this is a Mischief Theatre show – people try to do things, and their efforts to do them are thwarted by their incompetence. Pantomime for all seasons, if you will. The staging is impressive and almost lavish in all its tacky glory, and you will laugh despite wishing these people would push their work beyond where they started, even if it really is just right ‘round the corner.
Magic Goes Wrong will be on at the Vaudeville Theatre from 14th December 2019 until 31st May 2020. Get your tickets here.
Photo Credit: Robert Day