Magic Goes Wrong

Review - Magic Goes Wrong at the Vaudeville Theatre

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

The set for the original fringe production of The Play That Goes Wrong that opened at the Old Red Lion Theatre in 2012 cost just £300.  In true fringe fashion, the cast had built it themselves. And as Mischief Theatre co-founder Jonathan Sayer told an interviewer in 2016, "When we were wrapping our home-made set in tarpaulin and carrying it up The Old Red Lion's windy staircase, the idea that people from Hollywood would be involved in a couple of years' time wouldn't have been believable." The Play That Goes Wrong has since long become a West End fixture (at the Duchess Theatre), and after a Broadway run of nearly two years, it is now having an open-ended run at Off-Broadway's New World Stages.

The company now also has another West End long-runner in The Comedy About a Bank Robbery (at the Criterion), while the original members simultaneously continue their year-long residency at the Vaudeville that began last October with Groan Ups with Magic Goes Wrong, probably their most ambitious - and certainly most spectacular - show to date. They've also expanded the creative input into the show beyond themselves, with Mischief's co-founders and core acting members Sayer, Henry Lewis and Henry Shields newly joined by American comedy magic royalty performers Penn Jillette and Teller. And JJ Abrams, the director of the Star Wars sequels whose chance seeing of The Play Goes Wrong in the West End led him to assume a co-producing role on the Broadway incarnation, is once again above the title, along with fellow Broadway producer Kevin McCollum and original West End producers Kenny Wax and Mark Bentley.

It also comes with video contributions from fellow magic-makers David Copperfield and Derren Brown (both of whom donated their fees to Great Ormond Street Hospital according to the programme), so they're also definitely becoming part of the entertainment establishment.  

But if the company is in imminent danger of becoming a franchise, it's great first of all to see so many of the original Mischief team reunited onstage, which in addition to the writers also includes the comically invaluable (and insane) Dave Hearn, Nancy Zamit and Bryony Corrigan.

It's also a show that has the serious courage of its (lack of) magic convictions. The delightfully and intentionally misfiring premise is that we're attending a charity fundraiser for victims of magic mishaps, which (naturally) only escalate as the evening proceeds. All the expected tropes are here: the magician who produces an endless stream of doves, except that they're all dead on arrival; the mind-reader who gets everything he guesses wrong; the illusionist card trick man who can't pull off his tricks either; and the woman who gets sawn in half - literally.

I won't spoil the surprises by itemising exactly what else goes wrong. But suffice it to say that it regularly does. (Though Henry Lewis's mind-mangler may well have got it right when he honed in on me in the stalls, asked me what I did and when he found out I was a theatre critic, produced a note he'd produced earlier that said "smug").

Though there's quite a lot of repetition, and some deliberately tasteless gruesome sideshows, it is kept buoyant by the unabashed physicality of the actors and their total investment in living in the chaos created.

The show is unashamedly silly but also affectionately celebratory of a kind of variety theatre that may have long vanished - but makes a welcome return here.

Magic Goes Wrong is at the Vaudeville Theatre to 31st May.

Magic Goes Wrong tickets are available now.

Originally published on

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