Thursday, 28 February 2008

Review: Derren Brown - An Evening of Wonders

I've been fascinated by Derren Brown ever since I saw his first show on TV back in 2000. He is a showman who mixes traditional magic with psychological tricks and layers of misdirection to baffle and entertain. If anyone reading this has not seen his shows, I cannot recommend him highly enough, and you should definately get a hold of a DVD or download of his TV and stage shows to look at.

On Tuesday I finally went to see him live for the first time, having intended to for a couple of years (but having been unable to get tickets). It was the first show of his 2008 tour 'An Evening of Wonders' and it was genuinely worth every penny.

The first half of the show consisted of the more upbeat side of his act, with misdirection, card tricks, forcing numbers and cards on people, and winning multiple simultaneous games of '20 questions' in only a few questions. Seriously. The question 'Is it bigger than a piano?' was all he needed to guess that one audience member was thinking of a tomato. A lot of the tricks in this half were similar to those he has exhibited in his TV series, but it was a whole new experience to see them live. Whereas when watching 'documentary-style' television shows, there is always the idea in the back of your mind that there is the possibility of editing, if not to cheat the audience, then to help keep the tempo of the tricks up, and to make the whole business more exciting. Seeing him live, however, no such editing is needed - he's more than able to handle a crowd, and moves so quickly through the mind games and tricks that it is quite overwhelming at times.

There was also a nice mix of 'revealed' tricks, where the enjoyment comes from realising what has happened and appreciating how well he has pulled off a complex piece of misdirection or sleight of hand, and 'hidden' tricks, where the enjoyment comes from the overwhelming feeling of 'How the hell did he do that?'.

The second half was a little darker and more contemplative. Derren was still the consumate showman, but this time he was in the role of a nineteenth century 'Oracle', playing up the faux-spiritual side of his act, and talking more deeply about the psychology of belief. The first part of the second half was a demonstration of some of the spiritualists' tricks with a subject's subconscious, making pendulums swing and tables move. This was a much slower build up than the tricks of the first half, and was probably the low point of the show for me, as I don't think it went as well as he would have liked. The seance-type tricks of Ouija boards and moving furniture is perhaps better suited to close gatherings than large auditoriums. Nevertheless, the background provided by Derren, and the atmospheric lighting and sound made it intriguing, if not outright entertaining.

In the final part of the evening, the focus came back to the audience at large again. During the interval he had invited the audience to write questions on pieces of card, to put them in envelopes marked with initials and a row number and to leave them in a bowl on the stage. He proceeded to take these envelopes and pick out ones he felt he could 'read', apparently using the handwriting alone to determine the age, gender, profession of the person who wrote it, before asking for confirmation from the author, and moving on to guessing the question written within. Most of this portion of the show seemed to be done by cold reading, a subject I have read about in various places, including in Derren's book and in his previous TV shows. Perhaps he was using other techniques too, perhaps he is just astonishingly proficient at it, but the seeming accuracy of his readings and predictions combined with his natural showmanship was completely astounding.

He finished off the night with another incredible array of fast-reveal tricks, where the sheer overwhelming amazement of the constant revelations leaves you with no chance of analysing his methods.

I don't want to get into a discussion of Derren's magic style in general, since this is a show review, rather than a review of him, so I'll wrap it up now. I think the biggest compliment I can pay is that despite having seen every show, every download, every report I could on him and his tricks, the performance felt fresh and rewarding. There is a world of difference between seeing him on TV and seeing him live, and he manages to capture the feeling of wonder that must have greeted crowds watching 19th century mystics and mediums, while still keeping an air of control, of post-modern comment and of humour about the whole thing. His engagement with the audience is consistently excellent, and he seems totally at home with the interaction with shy or unsure audience members, turning any failures or embarassment onto himself.

If I had the opportunity to watch every show of his tour, I would leap at the opportunity. Not just for a second chance to see his tricks, not just to examine the similarities and the threads he follows during the second half of the show, not even to try and catch him out and pick up on his secrets, but because I have very rarely felt as entertained by a single person as I did on Tuesday night.

If you get the chance to see him, don't miss out.


Stanton Carlisle said...

Many thanks for the write up.
Imagine doing a 2 hour performance of a show not performed since spring 2007! Derren is a sensational perfomer - I saw the Tuesday and Wednesday and although both great the 2nd night was, understandably, a hugh improvement on the first.
It's not 19th century performances that he is replicating but those of the 20th century.
Cold reading, my ass!
London season:

TheTelf said...

Yeah, I'd have loved to have seen the difference between the first and second nights.

And, yes, 20th rather than 19th, thanks for the correction.