The Illusionists - Witness the Impossible

Simon Painter
Simon Painter, Tim Lawson, Road Show Entertainment, Stuart Galbraith, MagicSpace Entertainment
Shaftesbury Theatre

The Inventor (Kevin James)
The Escapologist (Andrew Basso)
The Trickster (David Williamson)
David Williamson, Ben Blaque, Kevin James, Jamie Raven, Andrew Basso, Colin Cloud and Den Den

This is a show that opened in Australia in 2012 and has been touring the world in various forms since. It is now playing simultaneously in Sydney, Mexico and on Broadway as well as in London but obviously they won’t be seeing the same acts as appear here.

Its glitzy show business frame showcases seven different magic acts—or perhaps one should say six, for escapologist Andrew Basso claims to be the real thing. He closes the first half with a recreation of Harry Houdini’s water torture performance.

Handcuffed and suspended upside down supported by the way his feet are pushed through two holes in a board and tightly gripped there, the board secured with an external padlock, he is lowered into a water tank and the whole cover then padlocked to it on all sides. Using only a single metal paper clip, which he takes in with him, he unlocks everything and emerges unscathed after a period of endurance without breathing that seems impossible quite apart from the other skills needed.

This is in full view throughout. It is claimed to be the first time that has been done. Predecessors have always performed this escape partly hidden but not here and an inspection by the audience member who locks the handcuffs and padlock and circling television surveillance make sure you can see everything clearly. But is it real or another illusion? Is it truly the first time? Wikipedia names two female escapologists said to have performed versions in full view.

If you are in the audience it is still pretty impressive but I am not sure that that the ultra-glossy packaging that this show offers does such acts a service. Such high-tech spectacle and slick presentation makes everything look so easy that it pushes up expectations rather then generating extra excitement. That is not to discount Christopher Boon Casey’s dramatic lighting, Neil Dorward’s direction and snazzy choreography with a team of excellent dancers who could be out of some Edgar Allan Poe fantasy in their vampirical black costumes.

Mind-reading "deductionist" Colin Cloud acts as an MC to introduce the show and a montage of all the acts sets it in motion that includes Italian Bosso reproducing a Houdini rope-suspended straightjacket escape and culminates in a sudden discovery revealing a giant locomotive as its climax. It is an opening that gets added excitement from Evan Jolly’s pulsing music.

What follows mixes card tricks and more intimate magic with dramatic acts offering spectacle. Deductionist Cloud not only guesses what people are thinking (and apparently guesses even before they have thought it) but gets an audience to come up with seemingly random numbers that, when multiplied together by an audience member on their own computer, produce a total that supplies the number in the audience, the date and the exact time at that moment.

A celebrity, a location and an object, all randomly selected, he has already got ready with a neat comic twist to their announcement. His selections really are random: a ball thrown among the audience chose one set and I ended up one of them. It all seems so entirely genuine; but, of course, that is what this show is all about: the illusion. How do they do it?

Jamie Raven, who gained popular fame on Britain’s Got Talent, does card tricks, tears up a newspaper that somehow is whole again and does his TV trick of making a marked banknote transfer itself to inside a lemon. Den Den, billed as “The Manipulator”, is a young Japanese magician who can conjure up an origami crane then multiply it repeatedly, turn them into other objects or make them disintegrate and make images appear on blank cards.

Another close-up, fast-fingered performer, though with a comedy twist, is “The Trickster”, American David Williamson, whose sleight-of-hand gets demonstrated out in the audience during the interval. He chooses some of the youngest out there as his subjects find cards behind their ears right under everyone’s noses and recruits young helpers to join him and a spring-loaded possum in the second half of the show. One stage-struck blonde boy he selected was so charismatically confident he nearly upstaged him—but Williamson’s an experienced performer who tactfully handled that.

A roving video camera and a large television screen make all these intimate acts visible in huge close up. Sleight-of-hand has to be really polished to pull that off.

Ben Blaque, the “Weapons Master”, is another act that seems to offer skill rather then trickery. After a series of demonstrations involving his trusting assistant holding balloons, flowers, even a thin newspaper page side-on as a target for the bolt of his crossbow, in his piece de resistance he shoots blindfolded with the tiny tinkling of a bell to locate his objective to set off a sequence of linked guns and targets that end in an arrow in an apple on his own head. He is so (necessarily) calm and controlled that it you don’t think of it going wrong; it's skill rather than thrill that he is offering.

There is skill involved too in Kevin James’s performance as “The Inventor”. He can put empty clothes and a dummy head together (it rolled off the stage into the audience), add a walking stick and they immediately walk across the stage as a diminutive Charlie Chaplin figure but truly amazing is his version of the man cut in half. The top half stays on stage, fully living, on a platform that seems to have nowhere in which to tuck up the rest of him.

James can also work offstage, down in the stalls aisle, on camera to ensure all can see him. In a sequence of paper tricks, he makes a crumpled ball dance up his arm, then respond to the control of an audience member before smoothing it out to create an effect that fills the whole theatre.

With “psychological illusionist” Darren Brown at the Palace with his new show and another set of magicians in the West End earlier this year and some popular television acts, magicians seem to be regaining their popularity. To be successful, magicians have always needed showmanship but do they need to take on the production values of a major musical or big pop concert? Does that really provide the best setting for performers whose work thrives in more domestic intimacy? Or is that what people now expect of a night out, especially one in the West End?

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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