'Mind Mangler: Member of the Tragic Circle' review – prepared to be amazed at this joyfully silly comedy

Mischief's new show Mind Mangler: Member of the Tragic Circle is currently in performances at the Apollo Theatre to 28 April.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

For their next trick, Mind Mangler: Member of the Tragic Circle brings Mischief Theatre back to the West End for a limited run. Not, of course, that this enterprising, ever-evolving troupe has ever really gone away.

The Play That Goes Wrong is now entering its second decade at the Duchess Theatre, and Mind Mangler is one of a series of titles that have ricocheted between Edinburgh, New York and London, spreading this company’s singular brand of good cheer and silliness.

If this is a decidedly minor entry within the troupe’s repertoire, that’s in no way to discount the two-hour show's ability to generate laughs, both large and small. Sure, Derren Brown owns the patent on mentalism at its most mind-boggling, and Mischief has upset the theatrical apple cart more elaborately elsewhere. (Penn and Teller of all people were amongst the creatives involved in Magic Goes Wrong, which premiered pre-pandemic.)

This one depends on the take-no-prisoners assertiveness, coupled with charm, of Mischief mainstay Henry Lewis, the Seth Rogen lookalike who prepares his audience to be “delighted, astounded and amazed”, as I suspect for the most part they are – even if Hannah Sharkey’s overextended production feels at times like an appetiser awaiting the full meal.

It’s in the DNA of Mischief, of course, that things not go right: hence the word “tragic”, not “magic”, in the show’s subtitle, even if that very rhyme features prominently in the Sheridan Smith musical Opening Night playing right next door.

Lewis may seem threatening, smacking his lips with Hannibal Lecter-style relish as he scans the house, announcing that he can “taste people’s first names”. But any alarm at undue audience participation is soon quelled by the presence of a second actor, fellow Mischief founder member Jonathan Sayer. He appears throughout in various explanatory T-shirts as a random audience member who in fact is very much in on the act.

There is some button-holing of the crowd, including an events manager who, at the press preview attended, prompted confusion as to whether or not this person really did spend his time tending to vents. (Another person called upon was in fact a critic there to review, so not much time was spent with him.)

For the most part, though, groan-worthy puns (horse/hoarse) co-exist with fuller set-pieces, the language dotted throughout with sexual references (knob, wanker) that must make for some, um, entertaining homeward journeys for those in attendance with children.

Lewis submits himself to a guillotine – spoiler ahead: he lives to see another day – and couples physical elasticity with verbal comedy. I especially liked his reference to “an internet chatroom for high-profile men on low incomes”.

“This is not my only skill,” he intones elsewhere as the illusions parade by with deliberately variable success, and the word “mind” itself brings with it an insistent echo that, one feels, must haunt this actor’s dreams. Small wonder that we are shown footage of the performer thrashing about in bed only to end up on the floor.

Both performers have amiability to spare and can trade on familiarity with a crowd who greet them like the old friends that both Sayer and Lewis by this point are. You have to commend anyone (in this case, Lewis) who references the interval as “a highlight of the show”, and full marks to the most unexpectedly pointed political barb in the West End in years.

That came with Lewis’s possibly off-the-cuff admission that “I slept through all of Liz Truss”. Whether the rest of us did or not, the deliberately anarchic Mind Mangler deserves your full attention.

Mind Mangler: Member of the Tragic Circle is at the Apollo Theatre through 28 April. Book Mind Mangler: Member of the Tragic Circle tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Mind Mangler: Member of the Tragic Circle (Photo by Pamela Raith)

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