Posts by circularpie

Jake Banfield’s Sprezzatura Show

Posted by on Oct 24, 2015 in Reviews

Sprezzatura-ShowJake Banfield’s magic show at The Charlotte Street Hotel in central London is a very enjoyable – and civilised – way to spend a Saturday evening. At the performance I attended, there was a couple in the audience on one of their first dates and it struck me what a perfect choice they’d made in coming to Sprezzatura: excellent entertainment in luxurious surroundings and the bond of having experienced wonder together.

The word sprezzatura is originally Italian, invented by author Baldassare Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier. The reason it had to be invented is that it covers a lot of nuances of meaning (have a look at the Wikipedia article about it) but essentially it describes the ability to carry out difficult tasks so effortlessly as to appear nonchalant. For me, this invokes an image of someone rather more formal and distant than Jake, and less genuine, but I see why he chose it and it’s a lot more inventive than most magic show titles.

In the elegant, comfortable, 75-seat auditorium, Jake presents 21st-century parlour magic. The house lights are up throughout the performance (as I remember it – certainly most of the time), which gives you an indication of the level of audience involvement. Jake doesn’t want us just to watch the magic, he wants us to feel part of it. I definitely felt part of it and, judging by the reactions of those around me, everyone else did too. From the personalised seating-plan to the way Jake relates to his volunteers, everything is designed to make us feel special and well looked after.

The show is well structured, with call-backs that give it a satisfying cohesion. It’s a good mixture of conjuring and mentalism, nicely choreographed to make full use of the space. While it lacks dramatic tension in spots, this is largely made up for by the relaxed and happy atmosphere Jake creates. This is no spooky exploration of the dark side; it’s a cruise through the pleasingly wondrous.

Too many magicians have sharp edges but Jake is a well rounded character, who builds rapport with his audience in a way few performers manage to do. He does this by being sincere and by having the mental bandwidth available, despite the complex and difficult tasks he’s carrying out covertly, to connect with the people he’s talking to. Putting aside the baggage I acquired by reading The Book of the Courtier at university, I’ve decided that perhaps contemporary sprezzatura is about being laid-back and presenting the extraordinary without hype. If that is what sprezzatura has come to mean, Jake Banfield has got it in spades.

The show is on only every couple of months, so keep an eye on Jake’s website for dates.

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Jamie Allan: iMagician

Posted by on Apr 20, 2015 in Reviews

imagicianIsaac Newton wrote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. The same modest message is conveyed by Jamie Allan in his magic show, which is framed almost as a presentation about the Evolution of Magic. Building on all that is noble and life-enhancing from the past couple of centuries of magical tradition, Jamie is creating up-to-the-minute magic, based on the sound principles established by Robert-Houdin, Devant, Houdini and the other giants of yesteryear.

In keeping with David Devant’s motto All Done By Kindness, Jamie treats all his volunteers gently and with respect. Moreover, he explicitly states that his purpose is not to fool us as such but to recreate for us that sense of wonder we used to experience as children. Far from throwing down a gauntlet – or even showing off – Jamie offers his magic to the audience as a gift.

Although the show is slick in the sense that it’s well thought-out and smoothly and elegantly executed, there is a slightly unpolished quality to Jamie himself which beautifully reinforces the impression that, instead of sitting in a huge theatre, we are joining him at a private party, such as the ones at which Eisenheim the Illusionist used to entertain (see The Illusionist film).

As Arthur C. Clarke pointed out, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. If your audience comes from a different culture, where the type of technology you’re using is little known, of course this gives you an enormous advantage. This was the situation exploited by the 19th-century French magician known as the father of modern conjuring, Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin (read the novel The Magician’s Wife for details), but the difficulty in most cases is that the audience is as familiar with technology as the magician is. In my interview with him, John van der Put mentioned the challenge posed by trying to engage spectators by performing the impossible in an age when the impossible is commonplace:

You find the four of diamonds and everyone goes crazy. Then their phone rings and it’s someone from the other side of the planet and they’re like, “Yeah”. You go to the supermarket and the door opens automatically. You find a deck of cards in your shadow and everyone freaks out. I’m interested in that dynamic.

Jamie Allan addresses this by making it clear he’s using technology because – and in the same way as – everyone else does. He’s using it to create 21st-century magic with what have become everyday objects. Not that every effect involves a smartphone, an iPad or social media; there’s plenty of low-tech magic too, with newspapers, rope and even playing cards.

The show includes a wide variety of tricks and illusions, from sleight of hand through manipulation to stage classics such as assistant in a zigzag box and sawing a woman in half. I always enjoy watching a person being cut in two and Jamie’s version is as open and transparent as you’ll find. Having seen a great many box illusions in my time, however, I’m rarely excited by them any more, but Jamie’s made me sit up and take notice. Old favourites like the silks and candles routine figure, alongside feats of mentalism and a stunning display in which laser beams apparently defy the laws of physics. In tribute to Houdini, the evening ends with a stirring bit of escapology.

The iMagician tour runs until 31st May and perhaps beyond. Jamie is an extremely accomplished magician, who has performed for corporate clients at the highest level: don’t miss the chance to see him for yourself. Whether you’re always on Twitter or don’t know how to send an email, I believe you’ll enjoy this show.

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Luke Jermay: Sixth Sense

Posted by on Mar 2, 2015 in Reviews

luke-jermayLuke Jermay is a master of his art. Apart from having one of the most ingenious minds in mentalism, he has created a persona so shot through with incongruities as to throw any audience off balance and leave them susceptible to belief in the paranormal. The disorientating contradiction between his semi-Victorian style of dress and his abundant tattoos, between his declamatory style of speech and his Essex accent, induces a level of  cognitive dissonance before anything even happens.

While Luke never explicitly states he’s psychic or clairvoyant, it’s clearly understood that this is the only explanation for the events that take place. Fleeting allusions to mental instability subtly reinforce the impression of someone with supernatural powers. The authoritative stage presence is friendly and unthreatening, unflappable and in control, and the glimpses of perceived vulnerability only increase the fascination of this character. The meticulous attention to detail throughout the show generates an atmosphere to confound the cynics and to give the whole audience a thoroughly entertaining experience, whatever their preconceptions.

Putting aside the psychological and emotional pull to buy into Luke’s implied version of the truth, I was at a loss to imagine how else he could do what he did. Luke is a magician and I have attended his lectures. Yet, even after learning all sorts of clever principles from him, I still couldn’t begin to guess what was really going on during this show.

Sixth Sense is touring till the end of March and with luck more dates will be added later in the year. Find out more on Luke’s website – then book your tickets before they sell out.

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Want You Dead

Posted by on Dec 4, 2014 in Reviews

Peter James is renowned as the creator of Roy Grace, a Sussex detective with a substantial fan-base amongst readers all around the world, and this book sees the Superintendent pitting his wits against a master of magic. As part of his research, the author consulted local magician Matt Wainwright and I was intrigued to read the result.

Want You Dead is the tenth book in the Roy Grace series and I have to admit I hadn’t heard of any of it until this novel was mentioned in the magic media. Before plunging into the tenth one, I decided to read the first in the series first and I’m glad I did. Dead Simple is a well paced tale that twists and turns unexpectedly and introduces a police officer whose wife has gone missing, who plays poker with his friends every Thursday evening and is pleasantly less maverick than many fictional detectives.

Perhaps it was my perspective as a magician, but I was disappointed by Want You Dead. For a start, how could Peter James have made such a basic mistake as referring to close-up magic as “close magic”? Not just once, which could have been a misprint, but all the way through. Even if the phrase had never come up in consultation with Matt Wainwright (surely impossible), five seconds on Google would have set him straight. This kind of error is distracting and undermines the credibility of the narrative.

Not that the narrative is entirely convincing anyway. Although I liked Red Westwood, the young woman in mortal danger from the psychopathic magician, I found several of her decisions contrived and implausible. The use of real people in the story (including Matt Wainwright himself) compounds this, making some of the writing self-conscious and giving me the sensation of swaying between two worlds, that of the novel and that of the as-it-were puppet-master.

My biggest beef is the character of the magician. Despite an attempt to explain how he came to be as thoroughly nasty as he is, Bryce Laurent is a one-dimensional villain and it seemed to me the writer was calling on the stereotype of the antisocial loner who uses magic to manipulate and frighten people. This jarred particularly because the author appears to believe in the paranormal. After a childhood experience, Roy Grace is open to the supernatural and occasionally seeks help with his detective work from a psychic – the latter being, within the fictional context, genuine. I don’t really know why but I had hoped this quirk would lead Peter James to give a bit of depth and subtlety to his treatment of a magician.

However, having been so negative, I must also tell you I read this book in two days: irritations aside, I had to know how events unfolded and how it all ended. I also liked Red’s therapist, who makes a couple of appearances. This novel may do nothing to rehabilitate the image of magicians but it does show the value of psychotherapy.

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Derren Brown: Infamous

Posted by on Jun 19, 2014 in Reviews

Derren-Brown-InfamousYet again, Derren Brown is packing huge theatres up and down the land. Playing to sell-out crowds 8 nights in a row in the same place is an impressive feat for what is essentially a magic show: Derren’s compelling combination of showmanship and apparently supernatural abilities seems to resonate with all sorts of people who would not necessarily consider themselves interested in magic.

This is a lean, pared-down production, with none of the sinister chill that occasionally blew through the big props and flamboyance of previous shows. Instead, the atmosphere is cosy, warm and intimate. The comparatively minimalist set is supported by effective use of a projector and by a cameraman who steps in at strategic moments to reflect on to the big screen objects and messages that might not be visible to those at the back. But otherwise, from the audience’s point of view, Infamous is a low-tech show – which serves to heighten the power of Derren’s achievements.

As fans will have seen on television, Derren spends a lot of time and energy discrediting mediums and psychics. Debunking spiritualists is one of the central themes of Infamous and, like Houdini, Derren does it by demonstrating the kind of paranormal phenomena performed by these people, while constantly reminding us that what we’re witnessing is, in fact, just an illusion.

The high level of audience participation, along with the conversational tone, creates a strong sense of being involved – as opposed to merely spectating – even for those not taking part. I was sitting in the gallery and I’m sure I speak for everyone present when I say Derren shrank that vast auditorium to the size of somebody’s living room (not literally, you understand, though I don’t doubt he could). Actually, to me it felt more like a classroom at the sort of inspiring school one sees in films. Like the best teachers, Derren drew us all in and had us hanging on his every word as he explained the experiments he was going to carry out, talked us through what was happening and helped us to form conclusions afterwards.

I can’t go into any more detail because, as at all his shows, Derren asked us not to spoil the surprises for subsequent audiences by revealing what to expect. I can, however, heartily recommend you make sure you see Infamous for yourself.

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