This is the first of Derren Brown’s live shows to be staged without the input of regular collaborator Andy Nyman. It’s also the first to be staged with a director with a background in ‘proper theatre’ (the programme’s words) in Polly Findlay, whose admirably diverse CV includes the Arcola’s atmospheric production of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire and D.C. Moore’s intimate exercise in storytelling, Honest. But instead of signifying a change in direction, Svengali, if anything sticks too closely to the template of Brown’s previous shows and while it is always solidly entertaining, it’s probably the least satisfying to date – though it still contains its fair share of gasp-inducing, ‘how-the-hell?’ moments.
If you’ve seen Brown on stage before, you’ll know what to expect: the first half of Svengali is episodic in nature, while the second half is designed to have more dramatic impact. In the first part of the show there are a number of psychological illusions in which Brown stays a step ahead of the audience, appearing to predict and manipulate their decisions. Some of these are delightfully effective, while others rely a little too heavily on cheap laughs. The sequence in which he wheedles out the details of people’s embarrassing secrets (quite willingly supplied by audience members beforehand) falls into the latter camp and in one case, the confessor’s inability to keep a straight face when questioned, means one requires no special mentalist abilities, only a functioning pair of eyes to spot the guilty party.
His stage persona is subtly but noticeably different to his screen persona; it’s warmer and somewhat blokey, designed to put the audience at ease. There’s some gentle mockery of the audience but it’s always done in a good natured way and it at no point does it feel as if he is pressuring people into doing things they’re uncomfortable with, even if some of the things they end up doing are quite extreme. Some of his patter feels a little worn but it’s delivered with sufficient charisma for this not to matter; he’s also particularly good at injecting a sense of jeopardy into proceedings, of giving the impression that events have escaped his grasp, that it’s all gone horribly wrong, before twisting things around at the last minute to reveal everything has in fact gone exactly to plan. While it remains an impressive feat of performance, it loses something when you’ve come to expect that, say, a seemingly throwaway scrawl on a piece of card will come to be important later; still, even though the destination is predictable, the journey remains engagingly convoluted.
Brown’s knowledge of and affection for the history of stage magic is something that has informed all of his past shows: witness his ‘oracle’ act in Mindreader and his dabbling with spirit cabinets and other trappings of spiritualism, all suitably tweaked and embellished to suit the needs of contemporary stage performance. So if you’re familiar with Maskelyne and Cooke’s Psycho, you’ll have some idea where he’s going, at least initially, in the Svengali section of the evening. Successfully tapping into a least two common fears, for a short while the show generates a pleasing air of the uncanny, but after a lot of build-up and back story, this whole episode remains oddly undeveloped and the ‘trick’, when it comes, is a variant of something he’s performed on screen (though it’s perhaps more squirm-inducing when it’s happening in front of you).
Though Brown claims the title of the show is not, as most people would assume, a reference to the malevolent hypnotist in George du Maurier’s Trilby, this turns out to be something of a double bluff. But then with Derren Brown, double, and even triple, bluffing are more than par for the course.