AMERICAN comedy magicians Penn & Teller have been sawing the magic rulebook in half for five decades. Now they have teamed up with British masters of mishap Mischief for Magic Goes Wrong, heading for York Theatre Royal on tour from April 26 to May 1.
Teller, 74, and Penn Jillette, 67, have long specialised in combining bamboozling illusions with dark comedy, their magic often seeming to go horribly wrong in its combination of comic danger, sometimes gore, even violence.
Their notorious habit of repeatedly revealing to the audience exactly how their tricks work has long prevented the duo from being members of the Magic Circle. Not that they mind. Far from it. patter-merchant Penn and the silent Teller revel in the illusion of chaos, typified by one of their stage shows beginning with a giant fridge falling on the pair, apparently crushing them.
Meanwhile, the Mischief team of Henry Shields, Henry Lewis, and Jonathan Sayer have delivered such calamitous comedy hits as The Play That Goes Wrong, Peter Pan Goes Wrong and The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, along with the BBC One series The Goes Wrong Show, where the comedy is rooted in the show-must-go-on spirit of the straight-faced cast members determinedly defying everything collapsing around them.
Penner & Tell plus Mischief equalled the perfect match in the making. Sure enough, in 2019, the Americans announced they would be teaming up with the Brits. Cue Magic Goes Wrong opening in the West End, London, and subsequently casting a spell on tour.
How did the marriage in magical mayhem come to fruition? A few years ago, Penn & Teller were performing in London when Penn’s family decided they wanted to see a West End show. “I don’t go to comedy theatre at all,” recalls Penn.
“I like theatre to be deadly dull, slow and depressing, but my wife and children picked The Play That Goes Wrong. I realised that not only was my family laughing harder than I’ve ever seen them, but I was too.” Immediately, he told Teller to book a ticket.
Despite being known for his onstage silence, it was Teller who started discussions with Shields, Lewis and Sayer, Mischief’s artistic directors. “I am more shy than Teller, so it never crossed my mind to go backstage,” says Penn. “But Teller took himself backstage and said, ‘hey I’m a star’!”
Teller insists it was a somewhat different story: “As I was sitting in my seat, someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘You’re Teller, aren’t you? The cast wants to give you free ice cream’. So, afterwards, I went backstage to thank the cast and compliment them, because it really was one of the finest shows I’ve ever seen.”
What’s more, Penn had mentioned to Teller that the show featured a magic trick. “He told me there’s a moment where a person reappears in a grandfather clock, and it’s going to fool you,” Teller explains. “And he was right. It absolutely fooled me. So, I said to the Mischief guys, ‘You do stuff that is so much like magic, we should do something together sometime’.”
A few months later, all five of them were eating homemade pancakes at Teller’s Las Vegas house and plotting a new stage show. Working with unfamiliar people was a new experience for Penn & Teller who, despite decades in show business, rarely collaborate beyond the two of them. Teller has directed two Shakespeare plays, as well as a documentary film, but for Penn it was nerve-wracking.
“Teller and I have a dynamic that we’ve built over 46 years, so this was a huge leap of faith,” he says. “We couldn’t go out to dinner with these guys; we had to jump straight into bed. We were told: ‘they are going to be here at 10am on Wednesday and you’ll start writing your show. You won’t even know which one is Jonathan and which ones are Henry [times two]. But it took about 20 minutes before I felt like I was around my closest friends.”
Shields, Lewis and Sayer spent a week and a half putting together the show’s bones in a small side room off the stage of The Rio hotel, where Penn & Teller are the longest-running headline act in Las Vegas history. Penn & Teller taught the team magic – “they picked it up incredibly quickly” – and suggested tricks to include, while the Mischief trio improvised dialogue and story.
Just as Mischief were excited to be working with two of their heroes, Penn & Teller were no less in awe of Mischief’s talent. “There was one moment Henry (Lewis) and Jonathan said, ‘it could kind of go like this’, and then the two of them did a five-minute improvisation,” recalls Penn.
“Now, I have sat in a room with Lou Reed playing Sweet Jane four feet from me. I’ve talked to Richard Feynman about physics. I’ve spoken to Bob Dylan. But I said, ‘this is a moment I will bookmark for the rest of my life’.
“I felt like I was watching the Pythons at their peak, and I thought, ‘this is why I’m in showbiz: to be that near that level of talent and skill’. And when I’m on my deathbed listing the 100 artistic events of my life, that moment will be there.”
Roll on a few more sessions and the show had come together, its storyline built around a disastrous fundraising benefit. However, by adding the trademark Goes Wrong approach, all the tricks had to work on two levels: there had to be the trick that goes wrong, and then the trick that dazzles the audience.
How did they devise these illusions? As Teller explains, the process can be laborious. “You get an idea, which is usually quite grand, then you find that it’s impossible, and you revise it over and over again until it works.
“There’s a trick in the show where one of the cast members gets accidentally sawed in half by a buzzsaw. That was more than a year of work. Part of the trick involves blood, but if you just show the blood on stage, it looks boring; it has no impact at all.
“So a big part of the buzzsaw trick for us was developing it in such a way that when the blood came, it would be sprayed up against a huge backdrop where you could truly enjoy the bright red colour.”
While on the subject of blood and buzzsaws, Magic Goes Wrong is more comically gory than Mischief’s previous work. Was that Penn and Teller’s influence? “Guilty!” says Penn.
“I’m afraid it might have something to do with us,” Teller admits. “We think that gore is essentially funny. It’s really hard to pull off serious gore in the theatre because people tend to want to laugh. They know that it’s fake, but they see that it looks real. And that’s very much like a magic trick.”
Penn & Teller’s work thrives on this clash of instinct and intellect. “What you want to do is get the visceral and the intellectual to collide as fast as possible,” says Penn. “It’s like being on a rollercoaster: I’m safe; no, I’m not; I’m safe; no, I’m not. Those two parts of your body are fighting.”
Despite Mischief and Penn & Teller having built their careers on making it appear that everything is going horrifically wrong, they insist that mishaps are incredibly rare in real life. “While we’re rehearsing, we might get a minor cut or bruise,” says Teller. “But we don’t ever allow the possibility of something going seriously wrong because if we did, we wouldn’t have been working successfully for 46 years.”
Indeed absence of safety angers Penn & Teller, who show disdain for “edgy’ magicians who put themselves in actual physical danger, even lampooning them in the show with the character of The Blade, who puts his limbs on the line for art’s sake.
“If you want to see someone actually get hurt, go watch NASCAR [ferocious high-speed car racing with frequent crashes],” says Penn. “If you want your art to be dangerous, stay away from me.”
Teller concurs: “Anytime I hear that in the making of a movie somebody was actually injured or killed, I’m angry about that, because art is what you do for fun.” The paradox of the magician duo’s work, and of Magic Goes Wrong too, is that everything must be incredibly safe precisely in order to make it look so dangerous.
For Penn, what makes Magic Goes Wrong so right is the combination of magic and comedy. “It’s a full magic show and a full comedy show happening at the same time,” he says.
Teller highlights a deeper, more unexpected layer to the show: “What’s interesting to me is how well it reflects the actual culture of the magic world,” he says. “It’s mostly populated by well meaning, very nice amateurs. And there is a great, heart-tugging beauty about that to me.
“The poignancy of the magic trick that isn’t quite achieved, where your aspirations are to behave in a godlike manner, and instead you’re slapped in the face by reality – I think that’s such a beautiful thing. That’s what this show is about. It has all these laughs and all these wild, crazy moments, but when it lands at the end, it’s about the sweetness of friends who love magic.”
Mischief and Penn & Teller’s Magic Goes Wrong appears at York Theatre Royal from April 26 and vanishes from York after May 1; performances, 7.30pm, plus 2pm, Thursday, and 2.30pm, Saturday. Please note, show co-creators Penn & Teller will not be appearing on stage.
What happens in Magic Goes Wrong?
A HAPLESS gang of magicians is staging an evening of grand illusions to raise money for charity, but as the magic turns to mayhem, accidents spiral out of control, so does the fundraising target. Cue dare-devil stunts, jaw-dropping feats and magical mishaps.