Magic, mischief and carefully controlled mayhem…
Images courtesy Pamela Raith Photography
As hit West End show Magic Goes Wrong is due to arrive in Sheffield, legendary magicians Penn and Teller reveal how they found themselves working with the team behind The Play That Goes Wrong, and how they came to cast their spell on audiences...
Over five decades, legendary magicians Penn & Teller have been sawing the magic rulebook in half. Their shows combine bamboozling illusions with dark comedy, their magic often seems to go horribly wrong, and they have become notorious for repeatedly revealing to the audience exactly how their tricks are done - which has long prevented them from being members of the Magic Circle.
Not that they mind. In fact, they revel in the illusion of chaos: one of their stage shows began with a giant fridge falling on the pair, apparently crushing them.
So when they announced in 2019 that they were teaming up with Mischief, the British team behind theatre smash hits The Play That Goes Wrong, Peter Pan Goes Wrong and The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, as well as the BBC One TV series The Goes Wrong Show, it seemed like a perfect match. The result was Magic Goes Wrong, which opened in the West End to rave reviews and is now casting its spell on audiences across the UK.
In Penn & Teller's live shows, Penn Jillette takes the role of motormouth patter-merchant, while Teller (that one word is now his legal name) remains silent as they perform various breathtaking illusions. Many of their acts have become iconic - check out the cup and ball trick on YouTube, where Penn reveals exactly how the trick is done, and still manages to make it dazzling - and many involve comic danger, gore and violence. In one trick they aim guns at each other’s face, fire and catch the bullets in their teeth.
A few years ago they were performing in London, and Penn’s family decided they wanted to see a show in the West End. “I don't go to comedy theatre at all,” says 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.” He immediately told Teller to book a ticket.
Despite being known for his onstage silence, it was Teller who started discussions with Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields and Henry Lewis, the artistic directors of Mischief. “I am more shy than Teller so it never crossed my mind to go backstage,” Penn jokes, “but Teller took himself backstage and said, ‘hey I'm a star!’”
Teller insists it wasn’t quite like that: “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 brand new show.
Shields, Sayer and Lewis spent a week and a half putting together the bones of the show in a small side room off the stage of The Rio hotel, where Penn & Teller are the longest-running headline act in Vegas history. They taught the team magic - “they picked it up incredibly quickly” - and suggested tricks to include, while the Mischief lads improvised dialogue and story.
And while Mischief were excited to be working with two of their heroes, it quickly became clear that Penn & Teller were just as in awe of Mischief’s talent.
“There was one moment Henry (Lewis) and Jonathan said, ‘it could kind of go like this’,” Penn explains excitedly. “And then the two of them did a five minute improvisation. 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.”
After a few more sessions, the show had come together. But, by adding the trademark Goes Wrong approach, all the tricks in the show had to work on two levels: there had to be the trick that goes wrong, and then the trick that actually dazzles the audience. So how did they devise these illusions?
Teller explains that it’s often quite a laborious process. “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.”
Magic Goes Wrong comes to the Lyceum Theatre from Tuesday 12 – Saturday 16 October 2021. Tickets can be booked through the Box Office in person, over the phone on 0114 249 6000, or at sheffieldtheatres.co.uk.