Magic Goes Wrong

Apr 14 2022 | By More

★★★★☆   Cleverly stupid

Festival Theatre: Wed 13 – Sat 16 Apr 2022
Review by Hugh Simpson

Magic Goes Wrong is the latest touring offering from Mischief Theatre, the team behind The Play That Goes Wrong and its sequels. It represents a return to their comic roots, together with a considerable sprinkling of glitter.

Mischief’s usual writers – Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields – have teamed up with magic legends Penn and Teller to create a show that might be short on narrative logic, but is high on sheer fun.

Chloe Tannenbaum and Keifer Moriarty. Pic Pamela Raith

Devotees of the noble and under-appreciated art of slapstick will be heartened to hear that Mischief are essentially going back to basics. Recent productions have moved away from their origins in physical theatre into more heavily plotted affairs, culminating in the mis-step that was Groan Ups.

There is an overarching storyline here – The Great Sophisticato, a bumbling magician trading on his recently deceased father’s reputation, has set up a gala in aid of ‘The Disasters in Magic Charity Fund’, which features a series of equally unfortunate performers. While the actual plot is thin, and ultimately takes a lurch towards the sentimental, it is really little more than an excuse for a series of set pieces.

genuinely funny

There is really no excuse for ‘comedy’ foreign accents in 2022, but that aside, there is a great deal here that is genuinely funny. In amongst the discarded items of clothing and ridiculous running jokes is a series of magical illusions, some of which work and some of which go spectacularly wrong.

Valerie Cutko. Pic Pamela Raith

Paradoxically, of course, there is as much skill in the ones that misfire, as it is just as difficult to make tricks go wrong in exactly the correct way as it is to get them right. There is something glorious about how The Mind Mangler (a wonderful send-up of the worst kind of showbiz clairvoyant, beautifully played by Rory Fairbairn) is unable to read the audience’s minds, but they are then capable of reading his.

As well as inheriting the interest in debunking psychics that magicians have had for some time, going through James Randi to Houdini, Penn and Teller have always seemed to combine a deep love of magic with an equally deep and amused contempt for some of its more ludicrous practitioners.

charlatan mind-reader

So here we not only have the charlatan mind-reader, there is also the ‘edgy’ modern magician Blade, obsessed with physical pain; ‘Bar und Spitzmaus’, the pair of mid-European performers, all aggression, acrobatics and wild animals; and an old-time, shiny-suited, top-hatted, wand-waving end-of-the-pier act.

Chloe Tannenbaum and Jocelyn Prah. Pic Pamela Raith

The influence of Penn and Teller can also be seen in the fact that there is decidedly more gore (and death) than in previous Mischief productions. However, the fact that we can tell something is going to go horribly wrong in the recreation of Houdini’s water torture trick, or in the ‘sawing a person in half’ does not lessen the delicious anticipation. The fact that the ‘dead’ performers then have a habit of reappearing does not really lessen the sense of jeopardy – we all know it is fake anyway, and the pleasure is in seeing how cleverly it is all done.

Previous Mischief touring productions have sometimes suffered a little from the roles being so obviously developed by their originators that it becomes difficult to separate the characters from those original performers. That is not the case here – at no point in Fairbairn and Daniel Anthony’s performance as the mentalist and his hapless stooge do you start thinking about Lewis and Sayer playing the roles.

winning comic presence

Anthony (familiar to fans of Doctor Who spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures) has a particularly winning comic presence. He is representative of how well the ‘audience participation’ parts of the production – fake as they naturally (almost) all are – are played.

Director Adam Meggido keeps a tight rein on proceedings, with the pace rarely slackening. The cast and magic consultant Ben Hart are to be congratulated on how well relatively inexperienced performers discharge the illusions. They also impress in other ways.

Daniel Anthony. Pic Pamela Raith

Jocelyn Prah and Chloe Tannenbaum overcome the cringeworthy “German’ accents to convince as the surly physical comedians, Keifer Moriarty has a definite energy as the ‘street’ magician, and Sam Hill has a vulnerability as Sophisticato. Valerie Cutko’s old-school magician’s assistant, meanwhile, is pitch-perfect.

The attention to detail in the tricks is carried over into the rest of the staging. Will Bowen’s huge set, Steve Brown’s relentlessly overemphatic music and Roberto Surace’s costumes are all just on the wrong side of ludicrous while remaining thoroughly recognisable. David Howe’s lighting is an absolute joy, with one running light-based gag designed to appeal to any fan of the credits of Fawlty Towers.

This may lack any kind of profundity, but at least it is honest about it, and it certainly delivers on what it promises. Magic going wrong. And then sometimes going beautifully right (often at the same time).

Depending on your opinion of Mischief Theatre and Penn and Teller, you will probably already have made up your mind about this show. But rest assured that if you like either of them, you’ll like this.

Running time 2 hours 20 minutes including one interval
Festival Theatre, 13/29 Nicolson Street, EH8 9FT
Wednesday 13 – Saturday 16 April 2022.
Evenings at 7.30 pm; Matinees Thu and Sat at 2.30 pm
Information and tickets: Book here.

The cast of Magic Goes Wrong. Pic Pamela Raith


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