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Review: Magic Goes Wrong at Liverpool Empire ***1/2

Magic and illusion has always included the risk of going wrong – and perhaps it’s that frisson of jeopardy that adds an extra irresistible lure for its audiences.

The most famous fatality remains Harry Houdini who reputedly died after a fan punched him unexpectedly in the gut, rupturing his appendix.

Rather more dramatically, in 1918 Chung Ling Soo (real name William Ellsworth Robinson) perished when a bullet catching trick went horribly awry, while in 1930 the aptly named Karr the Magician failed to wriggle out of a straitjacket in time to dodge a speeding…car.

Even prepping magic tricks can be dangerous. The late, legendary Paul Daniels (who had a Scouse granny by the way) lost a digit knocking up a prop in his workshop at home.

So Magic Goes Wrong, the latest in the stable of hapless hi-jinks from Mischief Theatre Company to arrive in Liverpool, brings with it both an impeccable pedigree and high expectations.

The impeccable pedigree also includes the fact it was written not only by Mischief’s three founding pranksters but by illusionist royalty Penn and Teller.

Thus, while everything that can go wrong inevitably does, it goes wrong in clever sleight-of-hand fashion.

So welcome to the Disasters in Magic Charity Fundraiser, a night which aims to conjure a sizeable sum in memory of all those magicians who have crossed to the other side of the disappearing cabinet.

The evening unfolds on Will Bowen’s glitzy set, framed by an arch which picks out the fundraiser’s title in lights – and later, in Fawlty Towers fashion, a selection of less flattering messages.

Magic Goes Wrong. Photos by Pamela Raith

Created and compèred by Sam Hill’s increasingly desperate would-be conjuror Sophisticato, it’s an evening of daring, danger….and, of course, disaster, from dead doves to malfunctioning mind tricks via some messy grand set pieces.

The illusionists are a collection of misfits whose passion for magic eclipses their abilities, from Rory Fairbairn’s tragic Mind Mangler (whose ‘special’ gifts include being able to ‘taste your first name’) to Keifer Moriarty’s The Blade – part frat boy, part Police Academy’s Zed, via a pair of bizarre German experimental acrobatic sisters, Bar and Spitzmaus.

This compact cast of inepts valiantly careers from one ‘turn’ to the next, with bleak hope in their hearts.

Of course, the jeopardy that comes with wondering if a trick will work is mostly missing in a show where we know from the off that it won’t – but there’s plenty of fun to be had in both watching the car crash unfold and working out how the illusions in it are done.

Like all variety shows, which is essentially what this is, some parts of the evening are more entertaining than others and there are times it feels as though the gags are stretched beyond their natural lifespans while others simply need more oomph for them to grab the audience’s imagination.

But there are some very funny moments, particularly at the start of the second half, and there’s also a surprising strand of pathos to be found among the panto-esque pratfalls.


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