Mind Mangler at Apollo Theatre: A member of the tragic circle

Mischief Theatre, founded by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, may not ring a bell but The Play that Goes Wrong certainly will. The same trio that penned the funniest comedy in a generation has been trying to best that 2014 success with a string of plays in the “goes wrong” mould. Mind Mangler is their latest attempt to repackage one key idea from their 2019 Magic Goes Wrong into a standalone show for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival first, and then for the West End.

The lineage for this comedy-cum-magic could not be more illustrious: Penn and Teller, the American duo that made their TV fortune by exposing the illusions behind the best magicians’ craft, co-wrote the original Magic Goes Wrong with Mischief Theatre. Field research on mind-readers was carried out in Las Vegas by Lewis and Sayer and magician Ben Hart is the consultant for the Mind Mangler tricks.

The whole show revolves around the relationship between a borderline depressive, broke and heartbroken mind-reader magician (Henry Lewis) and his hapless flatmate, helping him out as stooge in the audience (Jonathan Sayer), as they flounder, blunder and force they way through failed mind-reading after mind-reading trick.

While most tricks go wrong, drawing a good few laughs, a handful of tricks go head-scratchingly well. We get comedy and magic in a single show. So why does the total feel less than the sum of its parts?

In Mind Mangler adults laugh at magician and stooge alike for being so clueless but, more than that, feel sorry for both of them: never a good combination. The loudest laughs come from the six-to-nine-old cohort. Most unexpected of all, however, is the unintended effect produced by the tricks that go wrong: the mild disappointment is swiftly followed by feeling rather stupid at wanting magic to go right. There seems to be a part of us that really does resent evidence debunking magic and mind reading. Turns out that the child within most of us likes comedy to be ridiculous and magic to be believable but can’t cope when the two cross over.

Another reason, of course, is that Mischief Theatre are victims of their own success: if the audience did not have the slapstick, convulsive, laugh-out-loud funny humour of The Play That Goes Wrong as default expectation, this show would count as very funny. How unfair is that?

Regardless, we are grateful to the trio for their boundless energy, inventiveness, zest for life and sheer willpower in producing work after work to make us laugh. We’ll always be thankful for that first play, forgive them any missed shots and go out of our way to see their next production. Why? Because Mischief are the best thing that’s happened to English language theatre comedy since Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, now the second funniest English play. And that took some beating. 

• Mind Mangler runs until 28th April 2024 – book here

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