Going all the way back to 2004’s The SÃ©ance, the impulse to debunk has featured in a lot of Derren Brown’s work, both on stage and on screen. This is, of course, part of a wider tradition of stage magic – when not being suspended from his ankles in a Chinese Water Torture Cell or being buried alive, Harry Houdini invested a lot of his energy in demonstrating how, with the right skills, anyone can ‘talk’ to the dead. It’s one of several themes to emerge in Brown’s latest show, Infamous, which sees him reunite with his regular collaborator Andy Nyman, but while this show has been widely touted as something fresh and different, it actually adheres pretty closely to the formula of old.
That said, it is, however, far less bitty and silly than his last show Svengali, which really suffered from a lack of Nyman; there are no creepy automatons, no clambering about in the rafters, and the show is better for it. What is different is the overall tone; it’s, at least superficially, more personal, with Brown discussing his sexuality, his dad’s cancer and describing how he felt like a bit of a misfit while at school. It begins with him sitting alone on a chair in the centre of the stage in front of a bare brick wall and talking about how much ‘we are all trapped inside our own heads’ while a good chunk of the last half of the show is essentially an exercise in nerd-affirmation, an uplifting lesson in how all those kids who liked maths and magic more than football will triumph in the end.
Both Brown and Nyman have also spoken about their wish for their work to be more than mere spectacle, for the magic to have a message and there are moments in this show when that’s exactly what they achieve, asking the audience to examine their perceptions and to consider what it means to be truly open-minded. But there are a couple of sequences that don’t really fit with this overall theme, that feel somewhat bolted on, and the mixture of mentalism, hypnosis, apparent feats of memory and the, by now almost obligatory, call-back to a seemingly forgotten incident in the first half are all things we’ve seen him do before. In terms of structure however it does feel much tighter than Svengali and the over-reliance on schoolboy humour that characterised that show has thankfully been magicked away.
There’s the usual quota of audience participation, with one self-selected person given a very special experience, there’s some playful fairy-tale imagery (hello, Snow White), a couple of digs at Scouse mediums, and some video projection of the Knightmare variety, albeit much slicker, but on the whole this is a show far more concerned with people than with props and effects, and in this way it feels more in keeping with his earlier stage work. It definitely feels more grown up than his last effort; Brown’s showmanship is, as ever, impeccable, though it does feel as if they could have pushed the ‘Infamous’ concept further than they do and it’s not as cohesive a show as, say, An Evening of Wonders.
Familiar as much of the material is, it’s still a gazillion times smarter and more entertaining than Dynamo hanging off the side of a bus, but really this is less a Brown reboot, more a re-set – though in very many ways that’s no bad thing.