Magic shows are undoubtedly on the rise in mainstream culture. Copperfield may have become a tad rusty and Siegfried and Roy got eaten by tigers, but with the help of some primetime talent shows and an audience hungry for some splashy showmanship, Mentalists, Escapologists and all round Tricksters are now well and truly back in fashion. Witness the proof, witness the impossible, witness The Illusionists.
This Vegas-style grab-bag of magicians has already played one sell-out season at the Sydney Opera House, and is set to tour the world with this expertly pitched show. I’ve no doubt they’ll succeed. Whether they’re really any good or not may be another question.
The show opens noisily and with an undeniable sense of occasion. A train miraculously arrives and disappears, a Charlie Chaplin doll transforms into a dwarf, people twirl about and things get set on fire. The Steampunk aesthetic is established but never elaborated on, and the musicians fill in any of the blanks.
Soon after this pyrotechnic beginning, though, the production nestles down and takes a fairly conventional approach to its material. The Trickster [David Williamson] opens his act with some needle swallowing and regurgitating. He also has some nifty card tricks, but nothing we haven’t seen before.
The Gentleman [Mark Kalin] and the Enchantress [Jinger Leigh] perform the woman-sawn-in-half routine, impressive and inexplicable for sure, but again hardly original. The Escapologist [Andrew Basso] ratchets up the tension – there’s nothing like a man about to be lowered upside down into a tank of water to silence an audience – but again, the trick is as old as Houdini himself, and little is added this time around.
The two performers who do manage to bring something new to the world of magic are the Inventor [Kevin James] and the Anti-Conjuror [Dan Sperry], as much by their style as their substance. In fact the two work rather brilliantly as a point/counterpoint in style. The Inventor looks like a benevolent Colonel Sanders who takes a small child aside and conjures a moving rose out of paper. If it’s cheesy, so be it. It’s utterly charming, and a wonderful reminder of why we all love magic in the first place.
The Anti-Conjuror cuts through this sentimental mood with an anarchic tendency to wish harm on his volunteers. Unruly and gothic in appearance, he dominates the stage and gets the majority of laughs. His trick of the broken bottle and the audience member’s hand is subversive fun, but his final act with the seemingly unending production of live doves is truly a marvel.
There are, in fact, many moments of jaw-dropping magic in this show. If you’ve only ever seen magic performed on television, it is definitely worth the price of entry to feel the effect of it on a live stage. It is something akin to watching Lawrence of Arabia after a raft of CGI blockbusters and knowing that all those horses and sand dunes were real. The Illusionists reminds us that we still have the ability to be amazed. In fact we desire it.
If only the production knew where its strengths lay, we could have been fully transported. So much of the lighting and sound in this show functions as distraction and padding, and some of the material could be excised without any loss in entertainment value. I’d personally rather see a show just with James and Sperry, riffing-off and goading each other to greater or purer acts of wonder.
Still, it’s rare for a city like Melbourne to see such a Vegas-inspired production outside a casino. Despite the odd bondage gag, it’s the friendliest family show this side of The Wind in the Willows. And it’s guaranteed to leave everyone wondering just how they do it.
State Theatre – Arts Centre Melbourne
Performance: Friday 3 January 2014 – 7.00pm
Season continues to 12 January2014
Bookings: 1300 182 183 or online at: www.artscentremelbourne.com.au
For more information, visit: www.artscentremelbourne.com.au
Image: Dan Sperry as The Anti-Conjuror
Review: Tim Byrne