The mythology of the bullet catch is considerable. It is said that twelve people have died while performing it. Though this is most often said by magicians who are about to perform the trick in order to increase the tension in the room.
The illusion involves a loaded gun being fired towards the magician’s mouth by a volunteer; the magician usually appears to stumble from the sheer force of it, before standing up to reveal the pre-marked bullet clenched between his teeth. (Penn and Teller do a double version complete with Kevlar vests and laser gun sights, two little red dots dancing over their open mouths).
The most famous victim of the bullet catch ‘curse’ was Chung Ling Soo, in actual fact an American called William Ellsworth Robins, who caught a bullet in the more conventional way – a fatal wound in the chest – after his gun malfunctioned and a live round was fired. One of the most famous proponents of the bullet catch on the other hand was Scottish magician, John Henry Anderson, and both these men have perhaps in part been an influence on playwright and performer Rob Drummond’s new show, a fusion of stage magic and storytelling.
With his mustard waistcoat and neat, clipped beard, looking not unlike a Hibernian Derren Brown, Drummond makes an amiable stage presence. He narrates the story of William Henderson, a Victorian magician who died while performing the catch, expiring on stage in front of a crowd of two thousand. The narrative hinges on whether Henderson was a victim of the curse or whether, despite a happy marriage and considerable professional success, he had he simply decided his life had no meaning and so engineered his own very public demise.
Drummond intersperses Henderson’s story with a magic act of his own, performing acts of mentalism and a spot of table levitation with the help of a volunteer before finishing the show with the illusion from which the show takes its title. The volunteer is cast in the role of the man who would eventually, inadvertently kill Henderson and Drummond takes care to put them at ease, building a relationship over the course of the hour in much the same way Brown did in his Russian roulette stunt: there is even some hugging.
Drummond makes some intriguing points about the illusion of free will in the world, but this, like the story of Henderson, remains rather frustratingly underdeveloped. Similarly the magic strand of the show is hampered by the need to incorporate the storytelling. Backstory and myth-building is all part of the illusionist’s art but here the balance is always a little off and with the exception of a stunt involving a shattered beer bottle there’s a curious and crucial lack of suspense throughout – and is there really anyone still flummoxed by the workings of the table levitation trick?
More interesting is the way Drummond engages with his volunteer and the improvisational element that this brings to the production. At the performance I saw the volunteer was an engaging presence herself and committed to the process, but a different pick could result in a very different show. An early bit of interaction goes slightly awry, through miscommunication rather than sabotage, and while it is affably handled by Drummond it illustrates just how easily a show such as this could capsize. Perhaps, for both audience and performer, it is here that the real suspense lies.