Scott Silven’s The Journey is an achievement. A technical achievement, that is. To design an hour-long magic show that can be fitted into a front room, then live-stream it to a Zoom audience of thirty and to interact with that audience throughout, asking them questions and giving them tasks, and to seamlessly integrate all that with pre-recorded content – that takes some doing, any way you slice it. So, a tip of the top hat – and a curt nod of acknowledgment from the rabbit within – to Silven for his industry alone. But that, sadly, is pretty much the highest praise that can be conjured up for The Journey.
The Scottish-born, America-based magician-cum-illusionist-cum-mentalist has returned to his Caledonian roots for this experimental online show, directed by Allie Winton Butler and hosted by Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre. From the confines of a high-ceilinged, half-lit room splashed with drone-shot projections of rural Scotland, over a plaintive piano score from Jherek Bischoff, Silven weaves together two stories. One is of Cally, a young boy who discovers a mysterious collapsed croft somewhere in the remote Highlands. The other is of Silven himself, whose childhood eerily mimics that of Cally. There’s plenty of indecipherable chatter about stones and signs and childish carvings scratched into trees.
Around and amid this half-followed framework, Silven slots his mentalism. Most of it revolves around him pulling material from the audience – years, words, choices – and revealing that he already knew what they were going to say. Some of it is extremely familiar – the ubiquitous magnetic fingers thing, where you interlace your hands, keep your index fingers aloft, and they mysteriously gravitate together, for example – but some of it is fairly original, or at least concealed within an original cloak. There’s a good bit with an old map, which nothing but an intimate familiarity with the geography of Orkney will prevent you from appreciating.
None of it is really new, though, and none of it is going to blow you away. But to criticise a magic show for being able to see the strings is sort-of missing the point. Unless you are an aficionado yourself – or have watched enough Fool Us videos on YouTube to think that you are – then the intricacies of the act hold limited appeal. Far more important are the atmosphere Silven manages to evoke and the story that he straps his illusions to. And here, alas, he struggles to escape the shackles of shamanistic spirituality.
He’s a likeable guy – a luscious, Claudia Winkleman/Severus Snape sweep of midnight hair draping over one half of his face like the sash of a stage curtain, and a soft Scottish-American, mid-Atlantic burr of a voice – but he makes that awful mistake of assuming that to evoke mystery you need to be mysterious. What we might call the Derren Brown delusion. Perhaps his deadly serious, darkly portentous schtick is arresting in a packed-out playhouse – it must be, because the guy has done several successful world tours – but over Zoom, from the comfort of your own sofa and your own pyjamas, it’s just a bit much. Just a smidge of side-eyed archness would go a long way.
It’s part of the reason why Penn and Teller are so watchable, and Derren Brown is kind of a dick – and it is part of the reason why the underlying emotional arc of The Journey isn’t as affecting as it should be. Silven spends a lot of time straining to draw out a deeper meaning to his show, repeatedly mentioning how we are together in the virtual space, despite our distance from each other in the real world. His theme is connection, through time and space and shared experiences. And that should pack quite a punch, especially after we’ve all spent most of 2020 cooped up in isolation, but Silven’s super-serious style somehow cheapens his message, rather than underlining it.
It’s a shame, because The Journey is a dazzling success on one level (as anyone that has been on a video-call with more than five people, which is all of us now, can confirm, it’s pretty much impossible to get by without some internet issues; that Silven and his team can orchestrate a 30-strong show without a single slip-up is perhaps the most remarkable miracle he pulls off). Just not on the levels that really matter.
The Journey is available online via Traverse Theatre until 29th November: more info and tickets here.