A little boy is watching magic on a 1950s style television set in a nostalgic corner of the stage papered with old magic posters. Disconsolately, he fiddles about with some silk scarves. Director Anthony Owen’s frame for this undercooked West End magic extravanganza plays on nostalgia for a Victorian golden age: Howard Thurston, The Great Lafayette, Harry Houdini. These are names to literally conjure with. But a mawkish sprinkling of child’s-eye history isn’t enough to inject some magic into this charmless succession of acts.
As the frame suggests, there’s a focus on old-school magic and its weapons of choice: cards, silk scarves, magic boxes, flaming pokers. Jonathan Goodwin’s stand-out contribution replicates Houdini’s most famous escapes, including disentangling himself from a straitjacket while hanging upside-down from a flaming rope. Chris Cox, “geeky mind reader”, does a lovable and refreshingly original skit based on an imaginary fashion line created by an audience member. Jamie Allan’s ipad, laser-throwing magic is fun and silly in equal measure. AndLuis de Matos gets the whole audience swapping, tearing, and scattering their own cards, in a brilliantly fun bit of mammoth-scale magic.
But the constant shuffling of the audience’s attention between seven (white, male) magicians threatens to lose it altogether. The close-up magic particularly suffers: card-table tricks lose all their magic when projected onto huge screens, especially when the video is out of sync or even pre-recorded. And it also emphasises a dynamic that’s retro in all the wrong ways: suited man amazes, flatters and flirts with female audience member (no men were called on stage) while being as beastly as possible to his long-suffering glamorous assistants. Katherine Mills, the only woman on the line-up, dropped out just before the production’s opening: her absence only draws attention to just how male-dominated a profession magic is. Less than a tenth of magic circle members are female, and they were only allowed to join at all in 1991. And in this context, it’s a worryingly high proportion of the evening’s tricks that rely on women making themselves as small and silent as possible. They’re scrunched up in boxes of ever-decreasing size, punctured with flaming pokers, or found tied up in tanks of water, or revealed to be imprisoned inside a punctured dartboard as a “grand finale”: it’s like a serial killer’s wildest fantasies brought to the stage.
The women themselves don’t get any credit for their astonishing bendiness or ingenuity: their rippling muscles are hidden with diamante and chiffon dresses, and they remain almost completely wordless. They mark their survival by fawning passively on a magician’s shoulder, or by graceful arabesques or hair flicks borrowed from the old-school glamour girl repertoire.
It’s all gleaming with naff, car show machismo. And the point is only sharpened by the two big box tricks that finish the show’s acts. Before the interval, a sports car disappears behind a cloth (anyone familiar with stage hydraulics is unlikely to be surprised) and in the finale a helicopter appears: but static one with no revolving propeller, making it a rather less impressive trick than the end of Miss Saigon.
And that’s part of the problem with a big West End magic show: proscenium arch stages are inherently tricksy spaces, and everyone knows it. We’ve seen Peter Pan fly, so seeing a magician levitate a scantily-clad lady is never going to astonish. And there’s nothing about this show’s thin, cabaret-style frame that will get us back to that lost boy wonder, however hard it tries to signpost child-like amazement with its onstage ten year old, gazing with simulated raptness. There’s magic here, but it’s lost the plot in more ways than one.