The Venn diagram of Outspoken Atheists and People I Want To Push Into A Combine Harvester has a generous intersection, but Derren Brown, like fellow magician James Randi, has always been one of the Good Guys. Mixing healthy scepticism with heartfelt respect, he thumps few tubs and reserves his soapbox for the transportation of soap. Such pronouncements as he has made have attacked hypocrisy and intolerance, not credulity, It’s this attitude and approach which informs Miracle, Brown’s best show in several years, as well as his most overtly personal, and political.
As has become the pattern for Brown’s stage shows, the first act is essentially a warm-up: a collection of tricks that suggest rather than embody the main theme, in this case spiritual faith healing, with the second really swinging into the meat of the subject. It’s a format that showcases Brown’s increasingly genial and informal stage presence, a jolly, almost camp chumminess that now feels eons away from his breakthrough appearances as a gnomic mind-melter. But it also means that the first hour or so of Miracle are distinctly unmiraculous. There’s some superb mentalism, with well-crafted and paced tricks with strong presentation and punchy reveals, but there are also some distinctly slack moments. Brown’s use of Frisbees to select random audience members is slick and effective, but an extended period of arsing around with a giant inflatable globe feels scrappy. He may be a master of mind control, but his crowd control could use a little work.
Small wobbles aside, Brown and his collaborators Andy Nyman and Andrew O’Connor display incredible skill at the packaging of even the most familiar tricks. The old paper bag/cups with a nail in the bottom is given a new lease of cringe with the simple addition of a short reel of YouTube clips featuring amateur magicians fucking it up and impaling themselves. A gruesome bit of geek magic is vivified by feeding broken glass to an audience member rather than Brown simply chowing down on it himself. These aren’t huge innovations, but the work of a team with an intricate knowledge of working through a trick for maximum impact. They mean that even when Brown’s show isn’t breaking reality and dropping jaws, it’s consistently entertaining and filled with tension.
The second half is where Brown’s theme takes centre-stage, an ever-so-slightly garbled mixture praising humanistic self-determination and railing against the fallacies and cruelties of faith healing. The message is carpe diem, essentially, with an emphasis on setting and achieving small and simple goals, rather than spending life obsessed with failures from the past or anxiety about the future. This doesn’t really mesh particularly well with the faith healer business, but Brown’s patter just about pulls it all together.
The centre-piece of the evening is a re-enactment of a mass healing, with the audience standing, eyes closed, bathed in a divine light. Audience members line up to profess the curative powers of this ersatz blessing, with Brown pulling off mentalist routines and grand illusions left right and centre, at one point genuinely forgetting an audience member was still sprawled in the aisle. It’s so furious and performed with such panache that the lack of anything truly mind-blowing in the tricks themselves barely matters. This is magic with a message, first and foremost, and Brown’s unveiling of the psychology of faith healing is as illuminating and straight-thinking as his genuine anger at the damage it can cause in the lives of the sick.
Nobody could accuse a show as thick with ideas of style over substance, but there is a sense that the substance and style, taken together, have somewhat overwhelmed the magic. It doesn’t matter, as Brown’s show is really offering something a bit different. With the second guns-blazing magical spectacular this year just round the corner at the Shaftesbury Theatre, Brown is presenting a cerebral and immaculately crafted showcase of humanist thought and magical entertainment. It’s almost an illustrated lecture, its logic highlighted by genuinely baffling illusion and mentalism from an undisputed master of his craft.