Review: Magic Goes Wrong is a mixed bag of mirth and mishap on West End stage
Peter Ormerod reviews Magic Goes Wrong at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London
What's the worst that can happen? If a play goes wrong, embarrassment. If Peter Pan goes wrong, snapped wires and bruises. But if magic goes wrong - that's magic with swords, knives, circular saws and so on - then really, quite a lot.
The ante has indeed been upped in the latest offering from Mischief Theatre, who have spent a decade making crafted calamity their calling card. For this production, which is now running in the West End and touring across the country, they have worked with the none-more-mischievous magical maestros Penn & Teller. The result is in truth a rather curious affair, which at times feels like a hit of the most sure-fire bullseye kind and at others like it's, well, gone a bit wrong. As in, actually wrong.
The premise is a little thin but then no one goes to a show like this expecting great depth. It goes like this. The theatre has been hired by a gaggle of magicians who might charitably be described as hapless. They are putting on a show to raise money for those injured in while conjuring. The audience is presented with a series of acts: there's mentalism from the Mind Mangler, escapology from Madame Escapade and her daughter, edgy macho stuff from The Blade, and so on. It's held together - if that's the right phrase - by Sophisticato, an illusionist of the classical variety who performs dove acts and grand illusions. Or tries very hard to, at least.
The result is inevitably a tad bitty, and it is fair to say some bits work a good deal better than others. The Mind Mangler is a simply glorious comic creation and is played by Mischief's artistic director, Henry Lewis, with a mixture of immense technical skill and natural comic chops. He works the audience with great wit, his character a peerless example of one of the funniest things there can be: an absurd man who takes himself seriously. Shane David-Joseph's Sophisticato is certainly likeable enough, and Kazeem Tosin-Amore does some fine work as the buff yet blundering Blade.
But the show feels at its weakest when it is trying to make points: it can perhaps do without sub-plots involving a wronged assistant and an oppressed daughter. It is also notable that the laughs coming from scripted gags are often rather less ferocious than those provoked by acts of physical comedy. Some routines are essentially a single joke strung out over too many minutes. There are odd moments of flatness and enervation. Changes of pace are doubtless needed to ward off exhaustion among audience and cast alike, but the quality of these slower passages appears sometimes to be lacking.
Amid all this is some genuinely impressive magic and world-class folderol. The apparent ineptitude masks immense talent and craft: there will be plenty of magic shows this year that ostensibly go right but be far worse than this. The humour can be dark and gory but it's all done with an underlying warmth, and the show ends with a moment of real beauty. At times it's wildly entertaining; at others, a bit baffling, and not in a good way. To misquote a magician to whom the production pays gentle tribute: you'll probably like this, quite a lot.
* Magic Goes Wrong runs at the Apollo Theatre until February 2022. Visit nimaxtheatres.com/shows/magic-goes-wrong to book. The show is also touring until May 2022. Visit mischiefcomedy.com/magicgoeswrong-uk-tour/uk-tour/tour-dates for details.