Magic Goes Wrong, by Mischief/Penn & Teller, York Theatre Royal, tonight at 7.30pm; Saturday, 2.30pm and 7.30pm; Sunday; 2.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Age guide: 11+
IN a nutshell, Magic Goes Wrong, show goes right. Cue packed houses, just as there were for Mischief’s The Play That Goes Wrong (twice) and The Comedy About A Bank Robbery on past York visits, taking in both the Theatre Royal and Grand Opera House.
If those calamitous, chaotic comedies were essentially English in character, for Magic Goes Wrong, Olivier Award-winning Mischief writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields have gone international by teaming up with deconstructionist American magicians Penn & Teller.
Off to Las Vegas headed the Mischief triumvirate to match their verbal and physical comedy skills and instinct for catastrophic comedic structure with Penn Jillette and Teller’s magical sleight of hand.
The result is a show big on set pieces and spectacle, with the rhythm and flow of a speciality act bill or a circus and the cliff-edge drama of the audience knowing that if anything can go wrong, it will, but still being surprised by how it does just when you think you are one step ahead.
In the play within the magic show, a hapless gang of magicians is staging an evening of grand illusion billed on a malfunctioning archway of lights as the Disaster In Magic Charity Fundraiser. In Mischief tradition, mayhem ensues as acts flounder, flounce or or fall out, accidents spiral beyond control and so does the ever-elusive fundraising target.
All the while, in the Mischief house style, all the acts take everything very seriously, the more so with every calamity, faces determinedly kept straight even when in panic or pain, as they try to stay as serene as a swan on water while paddling not so elegantly beneath the surface – and unlike observing a swan, we can see that frantic paddling: the perfect recipe for comedy.
Running the charity fundraiser is Sam Hill’s master of ceremonies Sophisticato, son of late, great magician The Great Sophisticato, who took perverse pleasure in refusing to pass on his skills or props. Embitterment is never far from the breaking through the oily façade.
Ruining ill-fated Sophisticato’s desire for a smooth-flowing night are what befalls not only himself but also Valerie Cutko’s statuesque Eugenia, Rory Fairbairn’s hapless Mind Mangler, Kiefer Moriarty’s The Blade, with his lust for endangering himself, and the sparring German act Spitzmauz (Jocelyn Prah) and Bar (Chloe Tannenbaum), capricious as cats as they constantly seek to outdo or undermine each other.
Smashing down theatre’s “fourth wall”, audience participation plays a big part, with a cameraman filming audience members as they partake in the Mind Mangler’s inept mind games.
Pick your own favourite among the magic acts, maybe Prah’s wunderbar Spitzmauz, maybe Hill’s exasperated, thwarted, on-a-knife-edge MC, Sophisticato, but most probably Beverley-born Fairbairn’s Mind Mangler, the mentalist magician going out of his mind, initially vainglorious, inducing mockery, but gradually turning the audience to his side with cheers, maybe his ultimate mind game.
Allied to Penn & Teller’s penchant for the wow factor, the Mischief makers apply the ‘ow!’ factor, in the comic tradition of “no pain, no gain”. Magic Goes Wrong covers so many comedy bases under Adam Meggido’s direction, from downright silliness to upright characters; from physical danger to slapstick; from fast farce to slow-build momentum; from friction between the players to metatheatre.
The more you experience each character, amid the rising desperation, the funnier they become, in the tradition of Michael Crawford’s Frank Spencer or John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty.
Then wave the wand of magic over the mishaps, pratfalls and power struggles, and abracadabra, delusion and illusion combine to glorious comic effect. Amid the calamitous carnage, there are still “how-did-they-do-that?” magical moments, quickly followed by a give-away ‘reveal’ for the bigger laugh.
Whereas celebrity-led fundraising telethons go so slickly, this Disaster Magic night could not be more contrasting, but what comic relief for anyone who finds those over-excited, tearful telethons a turn-off.
Keep an eye on the misbehaving Disaster In Magic Charity Fundraiser arch in Will Bowen’s hi-tech set design, spelling out new words from those letters as the lights go out in yet another font for comedy where one word sums up this fabulous, fun, funny show: MAGIC.
What if you don’t like magic? You will love Magic Goes Wrong.
Please note: Magic Goes Wrong co-creators Penn & Teller do not appear on stage.
BEVERLEY actor Rory Fairbairn is making his debut for mayhem makers Mischief as the Mind Mangler in Magic Goes Wrong, on tour at York Theatre Royal from Tuesday.
Trained at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, he has since performed for such companies as the Dead Puppet Society, Lion & Unicorn Theatre and Bard In The Botanics but has always had Mischief in mind.
“I’ve been aware of Mischief for a very long time, maybe 12/13 years,” says Rory. “I remember seeing Lights Camera Action, a show about every film that has ever been made and every film yet to be made, performed by Mischief’s Jonathan Sayer at the Edinburgh Fringe.
“Then, a couple of years later, I saw Mischief Theatre’s brilliant The Play That Goes Wrong upstairs at the Pleasance Courtyard, a tiny venue at the Fringe, and you think, ‘oh, I’ll never get to work with them’!”
Hey ho, that was the thought that went wrong because here is Rory, playing the Mind Mangler in Magic Goes Wrong, Mischief’s magically chaotic, comically catastrophic show created with deconstructionist American masters of magic Penn & Teller.
“After coming out of lockdown, when I worked at Tesco in Beverley – so many actors I know worked at Tesco, six of them! – I did my audition tape with a bunch of things you have to read for what’s called ‘a self tape’ for Magic Goes Wrong,” recalls Rory.
“Then I went down to London for the audition and had a really fun couple of days of working with [magic consultant] Ben Hart – a magician who you might recognise from Britain’s Got Talent – where he got us in for a magic try-out day, making sure we fitted the tricks and weren’t claustrophobic, as we looked at these insane props, as none of us had ever done a show like it.”
Magic had never been part of Rory’s acting repertoire of skills. “But I’ve always been fascinated by it, like the Masked Magician on TV revealing how tricks were done. I don’t think he was very popular among magicians!” he says.
Now, as Mischief complete a hattrick of shows in York after The Play That Goes Wrong and The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, Rory is part of a touring cast featuring the likes of Sam Hill’s Sophisticato, Kiefer Moriarty’s The Blade and Jocelyn Prah’s Spitzmaus in a hapless gang of magicians that stages an evening of grand illusion to raise cash for charity. When the magic turns to mayhem, accidents spiral out of control and so does their fundraising target.
“We were given magic skills to learn, involving cards, but most of the magic is in the tricks themselves because they’re so well designed and well built, though we did have to learn some little things,” says Rory.
“The show is such a mind-warp because everything has to be technically right to make the magic look like it’s gone wrong,” adds the Mind Mangler.
The cast members have not met Penn & Teller. “Sadly not, but the Mischief boys [writer-directors Sayer, Henry Lewis and Henry Shields] did fly out to Vegas to meet them and write the show with them, and I think Penn Jillette popped over for the original London run in 2019.”
Should you have it in mind to enquire as to what a Mind Mangler does, let Rory elucidate: “He’s a take on the mentalist type of magician who claims they can read your mind and speak to the dead – or that’s what he believes, but he’s unbelievably bad at it and the audience ends up being better at his job than he is!”
Has anything gone wrong in Magic Goes Wrong’s tour performances that was not planned to do so? “Oh, absolutely! But that’s live theatre in general. This show is a fascinating piece because it’s a scripted play with improvised sections and really good magic, and as with any live show things can go wrong, and when that’s happened you have to style it out. We just work together, whatever goes wrong, and hope the audience don’t notice it.”
Rory has loved working with Mischief, directed by Adam Meggido as part of a fresh troupe of Mischief makers. “It’s a brand new company for this tour, a group of lovely people to work with, getting the chance to make wonderful theatre, and that’s a sad side of acting: you work so closely together, and then it’s over,” he says.
“We’re not too far from the end of this tour, but I’d love to audition for Mischief again, for any of their shows, as they’re so good at what they do. They really have made a niche for themselves and it’s so noticeable how they get younger audiences than so many shows, when so often theatre isn’t included on people’s To Do list.
“It’s just wonderful that we can make people laugh so much post-lockdown, which of course we need more than ever right now.”
Mischief in Magic Goes Wrong, York Theatre Royal, Tuesday to Sunday, May 1, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm matinees, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Age guide: 11+. Please note, Penn & Teller will not be appearing on stage.
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.
THERE was a time when Racky Plews’s touring production of Footloose The Muscal would have played the Grand Opera House, not York Theatre Royal, as indeed it did in May 2017 with Bradford’s Gareth Gates’s cowboy Willard as the star attraction.
Just as the Mischief’s brand of comic mayhem with a team of accident-prone Charlie Chaplins has moved from Cumberland Street (The Play That Goes Wrong, September 2021) to St Leonard’s Place (Magic Goes Wrong, April 26 to May 1), Footloose’s transfer is a sign of chief executive Tom Bird balancing the Theatre Royal’s obligations as a producing house with the need for commercial prudence after the triplet of Covid lockdowns.
Sure enough, Plews’s new production – “reworked with a new set, new costumes, the lot,” as Darren Day, one of two new star names, put it – was playing to a full stalls and dress circle at Wednesday’s performance. Box-office business has been brisk, driven by the industry’s time-honoured key ticket purchaser: women, especially for musical theatre.
Men, outnumbered as ever on Wednesday, nevertheless would have a fun time at this feelgood, then feelevenbetter show, delivered by Plews’s cast of actor-musicians with the pizzazz befitting Holding Out For A Hero, Let’s Hear It For The Boy and the title number.
Faithful to the 1984 teen movie, Footloose is the teen-rebel story of Ren McCormack (Joshua Hawkins), the high-school newcomer who has blown into Bible Belt Bomont from Chicago with mum Ethel (Geri Allen) after his father deserted them without explanation.
An innocent abroad, Ren is out of step with a stymied town that buckles the Bible belt on the tightest notch, the town council having banned dancing in the wake of four Bomont High pupils perishing in a drink-and-drug fuelled car accident.
In contrast with that tragedy’s fun-negating shadow, Dean Pitchford, Walter Bobbie and Tom Snow’s musical does indeed cut loose, demanding an exuberant, high-energy performance from start to finish.
Footloose is light, insubstantial, even a little daft, being a dance-filled musical about not being allowed to dance, but let’s not split hairs. Last time it felt dated too, but deliberately and knowingly Eighties in style, and that look is still there in Sara Perks’s designs and costumes, but so are tattoos galore and ripped jeans, along with a state-of the-art lighting design by Chris Davey.
What’s more, there is just enough of a sting in the tale of stultifying life in the WASP smalltown of Bomont, where the music died five years ago in this quiet Deep American South backwater.
Sunday’s earnest sermons by the anguished Reverend Shaw Moore (Darren Day) set the tone, having administered the dance ban after losing his son. Day, hair newly grey and goatee bearded, grey suit as buttoned up as Moore’s emotions, is the old hand among predominantly young players, and he brings gravitas to the heavyweight role.
He has one of the hit-filled show’s non-hits to navigate in Heaven Help Me, but does so, not once, but twice, with beautifully controlled singing, where less is Moore. Look out for his Elvis impersonation in Reverend Moore’s transitional moment: a lovely light touch.
Moore’s counterpoint is Hawkins’s appealing Ren, the clean-living, accidental rebel who breaks every Bomont taboo, complicating matters further by falling for Ariel (Lucy Munden), the preacher man’s equally rebellious poetess daughter, setting him on a collision course with college bad-lad Chuck (Tom Mussell).
Those of a certain age were excited that Day – who was called theatre royalty on television the other day – would be in the cast. Gen Z were far more excited at the presence of 2018 Dancing On Ice winner Jake Quickenden in the comedy role of hunky cowboy Willard Hewitt, the lovably hapless town hick.
Boy, he delivers, being delightfully dim in failing to read the endless advances of Oonagh Cox’s spunky Rusty and revelling in stripping off to his toned, tattooed torso in Holding Out For A Hero (recalling his time in The Dreamboys revue).
As for his singing, Quickenden nails the comedy number, Mama Says (You Can’t Back Down), one of the high points of Matt Cole’s exuberant choreography.
Hawkins’s Ren, Munden’s Ariel, Mussell’s Chuck, Cox’s Rusty, Samantha Richards’s Urleen, Jess Barker’s Wendy-Jo and the multi role-playing Geri Allen bring plenty to the party (or non-party, as the Reverend would prefer it).
Indeed, let’s hear it for all the boys and girls, as they sing, dance, play instruments and skilfully walk the tightrope between the serious and the tongue in cheek in their performances. Let’s hear it for the drummer too, Bob Carr, ever-present up top at the back, making everything stick and click.
Footloose and fancy free this weekend? This show is just the ticket for you.
Footloose, York Theatre Royal, 7.30pm tonight; 2.30pm, 7.30pm, tomorrow. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
MYSTERY and murk have abounded in York Theatre Royal’s hit and mist Haunted Season.
That mist descends once more, over a desolate Dartmoor of spectral trees and a grand house, looming in the distance, where the lights seem to twitch nervously. Except, this time, the foggy haze is emanating from Sir Charles Baskerville’s newly lit cigar in the country air, his face matching the contentment of a bygone Hamlet advert.
A bewhiskered, elegantly dressed Serena Manteghi has entered David Woodhead’s nocturnal set in the first guise of a hatful of such roles – putting the ‘Man’ into Manteghi as it were – on a fright-night when she will be playing men only.
Just as we are appreciating her miming – with immaculate timing to the sound-effect accompaniment of the opening and closing of gates and striking of a match – suddenly a ghastly howl quickens the heart.
A look of terror, a futile attempt to escape, and Sir Charles and his cigar have snuffed it.
So far, so scary, albeit in the exaggerated manner of a silent film, in a startling start where the titular hound is but a sound. Spooky, melodramatic, beyond immediate explanation: this is the perfect Conan Doyle recipe for the arrival of Holmes and Watson.
On bound Jake Ferretti’s superior Sherlock and Niall Ransome’s hearty doctor, promptly shattering theatre’s fourth wall as they demand applause for Serena’s miming, then introduce themselves and how the show will work.
Here comes the “howlarious” version of The Hound Of The Baskervilles penned in 2007 for comedy clowns Peepolykus by John Nicholson and Steven Canny and now, 150 productions down the line, picked up by Bolton Octagon Theatre artistic director Lotte Wakeham and the Original Theatre Company.
It still carries its original health warning for “anyone suffering from a heart condition, a nervous disorder, low self-esteem or a general inability to tell fact from fiction”. In truth, the cast and indeed the characters are most at risk. The audience, by comparison, needs only sit back, laugh loudly and burst regularly into applause.
The facts are that Ferretti, Ransome and Manteghi must play 20 characters between them, multifarious accents et al. Isn’t the heir, Sir Henry Baskerville, supposed to be Canadian, Serena is asked. “Yes, but I can’t do that accent,” she replies.
In the original, the cast of three were all men and Holmes suddenly turned Spanish in the handsome form of Javier Marzan. Such is the strength yet flexibility of Canny and Nicholson’s format that we now have the added pleasure of watching Serena Manteghi as she deepens her voice, mirrors male movements and tropes, breaks out of character under emotional duress at the first act’s finale, and once more confirms what an outstanding talent this former University of York student is.
This time it is Ferretti’s Costa Rican Miss Stapleton who brings an Hispanic flourish to the production, directed crisply and crunchily for the tour by Tim Jackson.
Comedy, yes, but send-up or spoof, no. Canny and Nicholson are true to Conan Doyle’s story, re-imagining scenes rather than inventing new ones, but always with the fourth wall in danger of needing new bricks again.
“We wanted to be as faithful as possible to the drama and intrigue of Conan Doyle’s masterpiece, while setting about discovering how to use a company of three actors to tell the story as inventively as we could,” said the writers.
“It became clear very quickly that simple props, rapid costume and scene changes, precision comic timing and a determined commitment to stupidity were going to play a significant part in our version.”
Think of the works of Lip Service’s Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding, Nobby Dimon’s North Country Theatre and Mikron Theatre, or Patrick Barlow’s “touching up” of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, or Mischief’s The Play That Goes Wrong, as Ferretti, Ransome and Manteghi keep veering off the straight and narrow but somehow still reach their intended destination.
In this case, this is the art of making a drama out of staff-shortage crisis – how very 2021 – but not needing to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear because the source material is from the top drawer.
Canny and Nicholson have it right in saying the “determined commitment to stupidity” is crucial too: a characteristic that benefits from Ferretti’s Holmes, in particular, taking everything so seriously, or the pathos in Ransome’s even straighter-faced Watson having a propensity to draw his pistol on anyone and anything, especially woodland animals.
This peaks at the outset of the second act after a Tweet “complaint” from an audience member – it was a letter in the original! – about Holmes’s lack of commitment to solving the crime prompts Ferretti to demand the right to re-enact the entire first half. A breathless snapshot replay ensues.
Someone so bright acting so dumb and supercilious is but one of the delights of seeing the Holmes and Watson partnership being poked out of its comfort zone, a shift as rewarding in its comedic interplay as Morecambe and Wise’s jousting.
The Hound Of The Baskervilles goes barking mad in this amiably daft comedy, at the cost of Woman In Black or Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s Ghost Stories scares, but that sacrifice of bite is a price well worth paying. Howlarious indeed.
Performances: 7.30pm, plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Mischief present The Play That Goes Wrong, as Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society mishandles Murder At Haversham Manor, at Grand Opera House, York, 7.30pm tonight; 2.30pm and 7.30pm tomorrow
THE Play That Goes Wrong will be going wronger for a little longer at the Grand Opera House this week, and you must do anything to secure a ticket for this Mischievous misadventure. Well, short of committing murder at Haversham Manor, the scene of this hoot of a criminally good massacre of a detective thriller.
Amateur dramatics and thespian excess previously were the good-humoured subject of Michael Frayn’s gloriously chaotic Noises Off and the merry mayhem and sexual shenanigans of Alan Ayckbourn’s A Chorus Of Disapproval in 1982 and 1984 respectively. Great plays, timeless too, but distant days.
Then, more than three decades later, along came Mischief Theatre, or Mischief as these mischief makers now market their ever-expanding factory of affectionate spoofs, with Magic Goes Wrong and schools comedy Groan Ups as the latest additions.
The Play That Goes Wrong was the tumbling, crumbling template for the rest, conceived in 2008 by London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts graduates Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, with their dual fondness for improvised comedy and Michael Green’s lampooning guide to The Art Of Coarse Acting guide, rendered in perfectly timed physical farce and choreographed catastrophes with the double bluff of appearing to be off the cuff.
In a nutshell, the structure is in the play-within-a-play tradition: the under-funded, hapless Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society players and short-staffed production team are at full stretch and beyond as they strive to present Susie H.K. Brideswell’s whodunit Murder At Haversham Manor. The creative team is full of Beans, or rather, one Bean, director, designer, costume designer, prop maker etc, Chris Bean, lead actor to boot.
What could possibly go wrong? Everything, so much so that the director must wonder not so much whodunit but whydoit? For the players’ gamely persistence, much gratitude in the face of crisis after calamity, still more chaos after catastrophe.
When your reviewer says “everything goes wrong”, it could not go more right in going wrong because the consequences are comedy gold in the traditions of Fawlty Towers, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, Morecambe & Wise’s little plays and the best of Berwick Kaler’s “ad-libbed” York pantomimes, as opposed to disastrous amateur theatre experiences of yore.
In fact, the more it goes wrong, the better, the funnier, the kamikaze comic chemistry becomes, and the more times you see the show, the better, the funnier, it becomes too. Remarkable!
Introduced by outwardly implacable “first-time director” Chris Bean (Tom Bulpett), the murder mystery finds Bean re-emerging as moustachioed, far-from-implacable Inspector Carter. Everyone is playing someone playing someone, or they are by the end when sound engineer Trevor (Yorkshireman Gabriel Paul) and crew member Annie (Laura Kirman) are pressed into emergency roles on stage.
In response to the need for expediency in Covid times, Mischief have picked a cast of The Play That Goes Wrong old hands, their past experience adding wonderfully to the ensemble interplay as somehow the show must go on, no matter how many mishaps befall actors and Nigel Hook’s set alike. Indeed, his Haversham Manor is a character in itself.
Revel in the delightfully observed send-ups of actor types too, especially Leonard Cook’s Robert, roaring his Stanislavky method-acting way through the uproarious role of Thomas Collymore.
April Hughes’s parody of a hammy actress with an out-of-control ego and an inappropriate range of B-movie mannerisms is gleeful; Edward Howells’ Dennis keeps all around him on edge with his unexpected mispronunciations of butler Perkins’ words.
Everyone is so spot on that scene stealing is impossible, but Tom Babbage is a scream as Max, a novice over-actor, with ridiculously exaggerated arm movements, playing more and more to the audience, rather than the script, and leaping, let alone stepping, out of character.
Sean Carey’s Jonathan has a momentum-building habit of turning up at the wrong moment amid the calamitous clatter of pratfalls, prop mishaps, misbehaving scenery and gravely serious yet dead funny acting as Mark Bell’s cast negotiates this minefield of an obstacle course so adroitly.
THE Play That Goes Wrong keeps getting it right, an Olivier Award winner from the Mischief makers that has chalked up productions across every continent, aside from being given the cold shoulder by Antarctica.
The West End’s longest-running comedy is spreading chaos and calamity across the Duchess Theatre for a seventh year and the fourth major British tour brings the show back to the Grand Opera House, York, from Tuesday after an earlier run there on tour number three in May 2018.
For those yet to encounter the thrills, spills and comedy mayhem of The Play That Goes Wrong, how would co-writer Jonathan Sayer sum it up? “It’s a comedy all about a drama university group who are putting on a play and everything that could possibly go wrong…goes wrong,” he says. “There’s a big cast, there’s lots of jokes and it pretty much does what it says on the tin.
“The three writers [artistic director Henry Lewis, company director Sayer and Henry Shields] have all worked in theatre and have experiences of things going awry in shows we’ve been in.
“Some of my favourite moments watching theatre have been where things have gone dreadfully wrong and the actors are forced to deal with the mistake and try to keep the show on track.
“On top of that, a huge influence for us is Michael Green, who wrote The Art Of Coarse Acting and actually taught Henry Lewis at youth theatre. Then there’s a huge amount of physical comedy, which is definitely a nod to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.”
Mischief began in 2008 as a group that specialised in improvised comedy in London and Edinburgh but now creates new comedy for theatre, such as Magic That Goes Wrong, on tour at Leeds Grand Theatre earlier this month, and for television, with the new six-part series of The Goes Wrong Show beginning on BBC One on September 27.
“We created the script for The Play That Goes Wrong when the three of us were living together in a pretty run-down flat in Gunnersbury,” says Jonathan. “We were all working in bars and call centres and restaurants, and in the evenings we’d come home and we’d write until the early hours.
“The initial script took about a month to put together and we then workshopped the script with the rest of the Mischief team. Everyone’s done a lot of improv, so we try and take those principles into the writing room and into rehearsal where, if someone has an idea, you accept it and you build on it.”
From playing to 60 people in pub theatres, Mischief have gone on to take productions to 35 countries, none more successfully than The Play That Goes Wrong.
Back for a second tour of bumps and bruises is Huddersfield actor Gabriel Paul, last seen in York in 2018 playing Trevor, the sound engineer pressed into an emergency role on stage.
“There’s just me from the 2018 tour among the 2021 principals, but all eight of us have been in the principal cast on a previous tour, so we’re like the Avengers being reassembled as they needed people to do it who were already familiar with the challenges involved, all up to speed, because of the Covid situation,” he says.
“It was my agent who first put me up for an audition in November 2017 – when I was really embarrassed because I didn’t know anything about the show at all! – and that process involved a lot of improvisation because the director and writers had devised the show around a lot of improvising.
“Initially I auditioned on my own but I ended up doing five auditions, going down to London from Huddersfield each time. They don’t mess about! They really put you through your paces as they want to see how you work with other actors.”
Teamwork is vital, as Gabriel has found on tour in 2018 and 2021 and in the West End in 2019. “One hundred per cent that’s the case. There’s a certain skill in trying to make things look bad or that they’re going wrong, and you have to really be in tune with your fellow actors because otherwise you could get hurt if things go even more wrong than the title would suggest!” he says.
“Being a physical show, it’s not just the stunts we do, but there are strains you can get, so we do group physiotherapy sessions with Carl Heaton, a sports physiotherapist from Manchester, once a month.”
The fourth tour should have run from December 2020 to April 2021 but after the opening day’s two shows, Lockdown 3 put paid to those dates. Instead, Gabriel and co have been on the road since July 13, relishing a return to playing to audiences.
“We have a saying, because there are 12 characters, we always say the 13th character is Nigel Hook’s award-winning set, but the 14th character is the audience because we do encourage them to participate and even to call out sometimes,” he says.
“It’s the audience’s reaction that I most enjoy about this show; being in a room where you hear people crying with laughter. Hearing that joy all around the country is wonderful.
“I’ve done plays with heavy subject matters and they’re important to do, but it’s great to hear laughter again after the 18 months we’ve had.”
Comedy or tragedy, serious or light, Gabriel has enjoyed myriad stage roles, whether in Northern Broadsides’ Quality Street, The Queen Of Chapeltown at Leeds Playhouse, Bouncers for Esk Valley Theatre or Othello for Demi-paradise Productions.
“I wish I was in that position of being able to choose roles, but that’s not the reality, but I’ve had the chance to work with fantastic people in fantastic shows,” he says. “I like to do something funny or something conversational, like Everything I Own, the Daniel Ward play I did when Hull Truck Theatre reopened in June with a trio of monologues.
“It was about Errol, a man of Jamaican descent, who grew up in Hull and has just lost his father to Covid. He’s organising his father’s house, and it’s a play with universal themes about loss and grief, fathers and sons, family stories and a love of music.”
Now, “having hoped he had done enough never be asked back, Gabriel is contractually obliged to say he’s extremely honoured to be reprising the role of Trevor and getting the chance to go wronger for a little bit longer”, or so his The Play That Goes Wrong biog jokingly says.
The truth is, half way through a tour that runs until the end of November, Gabriel is loving every minute of being in the Wrong place at the right time again.
Mischief present The Play That Goes Wrong, Grand Opera House, York, September 28 to October 3, 7.30pm and 2.30pm, Saturday and Sunday matinees. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or at atgtickets.com/York.
DISASTER strikes again as Mischief’s calamitous comedy The Play That Goes Wrong hits York this autumn.
The Olivier Award and Tony Award winner, now in its seventh year in the West End, will wreak havoc at the Grand Opera House, York, from September 28 to October 3 on its fourth tour.
The show began life on the London fringe when four friends from drama school set up a company under the name “Mischief” on graduating.
After enticing only four paying customers on the first night, The Play That Goes Wrong has since played to two million people worldwide, taking home an Olivier for Best New Comedy in 2015 and a Tony for its subsequent Broadway transfer.
Mischief have enjoyed further West End success with Peter Pan Goes Wrong, A Comedy About A Bank Robbery, Groan Ups, Mischief Movie Night and Magic Goes Wrong, while their debut six-part television series, The Goes Wrong Show, aired on BBC One. The 2020 commission of a Christmas special, Nativity, will be followed by a second series, now in production.
In The Play That Goes Wrong, the (fictional) Cornley Drama Society are putting on a 1920s’ murder mystery, The Murder At Haversham Manor, but as the title suggests, everything that can go wrong … does! The accident-prone thesps must battle against all the odds to reach their final curtain call, alas for them with ever-more humorous results.
In the 2021 touring cast will be Tom Babbage as Max; Tom Bulpett as Chris; Seán Carey as Jonathan; Leonard Cook as Robert; Edward Howells as Dennis; April Hughes as Sandra; Laura Kirman as Annie and Gabriel Paul as Trevor. Understudies will be Katie Hitchcock, Damien James, Edi De Melo and Aisha Numah.
Co-written by Mischief company members Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, the tour production is directed by Sean Turner, with set designs by Nigel Hook, costumes by Roberto Surace, lighting by Ric Mountjoy and sound design by Andrew Johnson.
The Play That Goes Wrong will be completing a hattrick of York visits after playing the Theatre Royal in April 2014 and the Grand Opera House in May 2018. Mischief’s “criminally good” A Comedy About A Bank Robbery made its York debut at the Opera House in February 2019, with soon-to-return Sean Carey as the ace scene stealer.
Tickets for next month’s 7.30pm evening performances and 2.30pm Thursday, Saturday and Sunday matinees are on sale on 0844 871 7615 or at atgtickets.com/York.