Love a pickpocket. Maybe it’s because I once played a member of Fagin’s Gang in Oliver! and secretly wish it was still a genuine career prospect, or maybe it’s because of ‘The Hitch-Hiker’, Roald Dahl’s gorgeous short story of a professional cutpurse that’s the high-point of Henry Sugar. But it’s probably for the same reason that I like jewel thieves, and real-life heists (not films about heists *spits*) – because it’s like a proper profession. Because it involves skill and hard work and craftsmanship. There’s something vaguely guild-y about it. Like a secret society. It’s that, all of that, which makes James Freedman’s superb show such an absolute delight. Because Freedman is a craftsman, and an entertainer, and his Man of Steal is framed as a delicious ‘behind the scenes’ of a world of cunning skulduggery and ingenious dodges, and for fans of the fingersmith, it’s pretty much irresistible.
Man of Steal is structured as a lecture into both the history of the pickpocket’s art, and a dire warning for its audience to take more care with their valuables, tangible and intangible. On one level it’s a jaunty introduction to the secret codes and signals employed by street thieves down the ages, and on the other it’s like a miniature version of James Graham’s Privacy – a demonstration of how easily and thoroughly an identity can be hacked and vital information scammed from the most innocuous of everyday items.
On another level, however, this is also a stunning evening of sleight of hand and technological illusion. Freedman is an accomplished magician who has landed on that rarest of conceits which perfectly frames his work without ever mentioning tricks or magical powers. Like Derren Brown’s powers of psychological suggestion, Freedman’s ruse grounds his show in a level of reality that allows for genuine bafflement without compromising his credibility.
Freedman’s central theme is ‘skimming’, the replication of an item such as a debit card or a piece of information such as a long credit card number of a PIN for the purpose of financial gain. We’re taken through methods of brilliant simplicity, as well as the more technological schemes hatched by state of the art card frauds. In the role of ‘the honest pickpocket’, Freedman swizzles or scams a series of volunteers, who in the main seem genuinely baffled to have their pockets lightened or their personal information extracted.
Freedman may never have swiped a wallet with his light-fingered skills, but he’s obviously a canny operator, and wheezes like insuring his hands for £1 Million back in 2003 speak of a performer with Barnum and Bailey instincts. This is a show with obvious appeal to the wealthy casino crowd, as well as to fans of quality illusion and showmanship. It’s a magic show with a message – delivered with silk-smooth presentation and affability, – and a chance to see a very fine craftsman indeed at his work.