The name Derren Brown attached to a magic show attracted an expectant audience to its first appearance at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester, back in August – even if Derren Brown is only one of the writers, and doesn’t actually appear. But is the name alone enough to transplant the show to the Criterion Theatre, right in the middle of Piccadilly Circus? At the risk of sounding horribly metropolitan elitist: not even close.
It opens well, with a four-piece peripatetic jazz band featuring the musical skills of Laura Andresen Guimaraes (baritone sax), Hannah Price (tenor sax), Izalni Batista Nascimento Jr (trumpet) and Alexander Bean (drums). Their enthusiastic, cheerful music warms up the audience, and they continue to punctuate the action throughout the show as Simon Lipkin, the bouffant-haired, cheeky-grinned master of ceremonies, introduces the first magic trick. It’s a standard disappearing cabinet trick, but extended to feature multiple occupants while showing the audience how it’s done. And because the trick is worked with gusto and wit, we’re carried along by it.
But the first half slides after this relative high point. Next up is an interlocking ring trick, featuring wedding rings borrowed from the audience before the show started. Close-up magic? Really? In a West End show? No, it’s ok, you can see the trick projected onto the curtain at the back of the stage. Except that the curtain is so crinkled that it’s hard to make out the projection when it’s divided into a hundred vertical strips. It’s the sort of trick you’d expect to see performed by one of those wandering magicians hired to liven up corporate events before the call for dinner.
There follows a lengthy routine in which plain water is apparently (and repeatedly) turned into alcohol. How do we know? Because the half dozen audience members selected to go up on stage tell us so. Again, this is a technique that may well work as a corporate warm-up: when Colin from Marketing says the water has turned to whisky, you’re likely to believe him. But there’s only a certain number of times you can gasp in wonder at some random stranger asserting ‘yes, that is my wedding ring’ or ‘yes, that does taste like Bacardi and coke’, or ‘yes, that is the song I was thinking of’. It’s weak material, and not even the presence of ebullient James Corden lookalike Samuel Creasey, with his incessant ‘alright, mate?’ cheeriness, can lift it from its torpor.
One routine involves five one-inch cubes as props – ludicrously inappropriate in a large theatre. After the trick it was announced that you can buy those cubes, complete with instructions, from the foyer. For ten pounds. So does that mean anyone can learn this trick in a few minutes? Well, yes, it appears so. As is freely admitted, this show is performed by actors, not professional magicians. Any tricks that can be performed after a couple of weeks’ rehearsal are necessarily low-skill routines. Yolanda Ovide struggles gamely with a balloon on a string act; Hannah Price’s appearance as a homage to the magician’s assistant is deflated by a baggy, low rent costume.
Derren Brown never aspired to the glittering spectacle of David Copperfield, or even the sequin-studded glitz of Paul Daniels. But a West End show does require a certain degree of glamour. Here, the cast are all dressed in a cheap grey trousers and waistcoat combo with red bow ties, looking more like waiters at a steak restaurant chain than magicians. The addition of cheap wooden tables and chairs as props does little to raise the tone. Apart from a couple of nicely made props, the appearance is more end-of-the-pier than Criterion Theatre.
There are one or two highlights, most notably Hannah Price’s impressive ability to deduce the song a series of audience-sourced pianists are thinking of, just from the involuntary movement of their fingers as their hands rest on her shoulder – although the fact that all participants were taken out of the room before being allowed on stage did lead some in the audience to doubt the veracity of the effect. But most of the tricks are tired routines, and the show is almost entirely devoid of spectacle. The show promises ‘jaw dropping illusions never before seen in the West End’; but the West End deserves better than this.
Written by: Derren Brown, Andrew O’Connor, Michael Vine, Paul Sandler and Kenny Wax
Produced by: Unbelievable Productions with Mercury Theatre
Unbelievable plays at the Criterion Theatre until 7 April 2024. Tickets available here.