Pros: Some of the magic tricks presented on stage are astonishing.
Cons: The plot needs tightening.
A hundred years after his death, John Nevil Maskelyne returns to the stage, embodied by the similarly moustachioed Andrew Thorn. Extravagant and often controversial, the Victorian magician spent his life challenging the charlatans of his time, and investigating claims to supernatural powers. This dedication, along with his pioneering illusions, earned him the title of father of modern magic, with some of his most breath-taking numbers still performed to this day.
Working in partnership with lifelong friend, George Cooke (Dave Short), Maskelyne began his career by debunking the Davenport brothers’ spirit cabinet trick and exposing the fraudulent spiritualists. Later engaged fortuitously by producer William Morton, Maskelyne and Cook toured the country for two years, before securing a 31-year residency at what was then Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, and is now the site of a Starbucks.
Their success, as well as their professional challenges and personal dilemmas, are dramatised in Jarek Adams’ The Mysterious Gentleman, which, after George’s premature death, shows a grumpier and more superstitious Maskelyne emerging in his older age. Supported in his late career by his son Nevil (Josh Harper), the magician encounters a mysterious gentleman, whose suspicious presence feeds some rumours about his affiliation with dark spirits.
Remaining unchanged throughout the performance, the stage presents elements of the characters’ private and professional lives. On one side, a large desk covered with books and other papers stands beside a large crate full of tools and magic paraphernalia; on the other, the towering spirit cabinet reminds audiences of the conjurer’s raise to fame.
Different lighting temperatures mark the transitions between private conversations and public performances, with the real audience often being actively involved in the show. Someone sat next to me was invited to place his watch inside a fabric bag, which then disappeared inside a black box and eventually re-emerged from Short’s pocket.
Despite its fascinating subject, after a 55-minute first act where solid acting is accompanied by astonishing magic, Adams’ plot doesn’t live up to its promise, and the second part offers fewer tricks whilst the dialogues drag. Maskelyne’s increasing propensity towards the supernatural originates from unclear sources, and his mental decline appears too sudden.
The play would have worked better as a single act; the interval breaks the tempo and the second act never recovers the speed. This is a pity and an unnecessary flaw for a ploy that explores the fascinating life of an illustrious Victorian, through the use of its own magic devices.
Author: Jarek Adams
Director: Kasia Różycki
Producer: Partners in Mischief and Off The Cliff
Box Office: 020 7729 2202
Booking Link: https://www.ticketweb.co.uk/search/?keyword=The+Mysterious+Gentleman
Booking Until: 18th November 2017