Interview with Magician Richard Leigh

November 2008

richard-leigh5In August, while researching on the internet for the Where to See Live Magic section of this website, I came across The Magic Cavern. It sounded interesting so, the next time I was in London, I went along – and I’m so glad I did! You can read my review of this show and some of Richard Leigh’s others by clicking on the link above; suffice it to say here that it’s wonderful and highly recommended. At the end, I had a chat with Richard and found him to be modest, straightforward and generally delightful. He is also an absolute dynamo, creating new show after new show, while continuing to perform many times a week to sell-out crowds in two (soon to be three) London theatres. Despite being astonishingly prolific, Richard has a calm, unhurried quality that makes him easy to talk to.

Over the Hallowe’en weekend, when I was down south again, Richard generously provided complimentary tickets to all three magic shows he was currently producing/performing in and managed to squeeze in this interview at The Magic Cavern an hour before the show started.

Georgie:  Before we talk about magic, I just wanted to ask you about Mamma Mia. When you said you were fitting in Mamma Mia between The Sideshow of Wonders and Late Night Magic on Friday, I thought you were going to watch it, but I gather that’s not the case.

Richard:  No, I work on it.

Georgie:  You do the lighting, your friend was saying. So you’re a lighting expert as well as a great magician.

Richard:  I work in the lighting department, yes – I wouldn’t say an expert, though… It was a fascination with lighting that got me into magic.

Georgie:  Oh, that’s interesting. Tell me how that happened.

Richard:  When I was at school, I was only good at art. I was fascinated by theatre and theatrical effects and decided from a very early age that that was the area I was going to go into when I left school (which I did when I was 16): a career in either scenic painting, lighting or both. The magic didn’t come into it until very much later on. Reading a book on stage lighting, I found fabulous devices using mirrors, glass and gauzes, which had magical applications for theatre – and that’s how my interest in magic and illusion started.

Georgie:  I see… so what you were learning about was effects for how to pretend it’s raining or something.

Richard:  Yes, that sort of thing.

Georgie:  I was going to ask about why you chose stage magic rather than close-up but you’ve just explained that. When and where did you start performing?

Richard:  I’ve been performing magic for 22 years, of which 15 were purely magic – on cruise ships, in hotels, in holiday centres. Theatres were a luxury because, as you well know, there’s not a lot of magic in the theatre, especially in this country, which is heart-breaking. I just wasn’t getting the work that I wanted to do. I wasn’t getting the work that allowed me to play, to experiment. There was no artistic side to the work I was getting. I did it for 15 years because we all have to make a living, don’t we? Then it was 1999 into 2000, it was one of those years when I just made a decision. Enough is enough, I’m not enjoying this.

I never set out to be a magician. I had two paths to go down when I was 16 and I’m not saying I went down the wrong path because I didn’t. What I’ve done in those early 15 years of performing, where I’ve been, what I’ve experienced, I would never get another opportunity to do that again. But that’s done, done, closed. I wanted to carry on performing magic but I had to go back to my passion, the other path … which was creating magic with light, paint, scenery – and in the theatre.

Georgie:  I see, so you don’t make props for the magic, as it were, you do magic to use the props that you enjoy making.

Richard:  I love prop-making and scenic painting, and I am fortunate to eventually use those props etc within the shows I have created them for. It’s total visual control.

Georgie:  That’s so interesting and so unusual.

Richard:  I fell into magic. Luckily, you know, I am fine, I can present it, that’s not a problem… I enjoy it now, I’m loving every day of it now but go back ten years ago and I wasn’t as happy. I was earning decent money but money isn’t everything, is it?

Georgie:  Absolutely not. So you wanted to be using your hands and creating things. You mean, it’s not the interacting with people that you particularly enjoy, although you’re so good at it?

Richard:  It’s a balance. Because I was only doing the interactive side and not getting the opportunity to do the creative side, it became too unbalanced. At the moment, it’s fifty/fifty and that’s why I’m happy now and have been since I made that change in path in January 2000.

Georgie:  You’ve currently got three different shows running and there are a few effects that you do in at least two of them, though slightly differently. Do you find it confusing to do different routines with the same props – for example, the cup and ball?

Richard:  Ah, well, not really. I’ve been doing those effects for so long that it’s not difficult to play around with them. The Sideshow is still evolving; it’s at a very early stage. Give that show another two or three years and, with the expansion of that production, the cup and ball will not be in it.

Georgie:  I would never have known it was at an early stage. It looked very smooth and polished to me.

Richard:  There is so much work in progress. A lot of the other effects from the Sideshow are things I used to do in my very early days. For example, that sub trunk was the first box that I ever made. The prop is over 22 years old and it’s had so many repaints to keep the artwork looking tidy.

Georgie:  That sub trunk was phenomenal! So quick – and so close; the audience is practically on top of it.

Richard:  Well, it’s such a small venue. A deliberate choice of presenting magic up very close, irrespective of how big or how small the magic is.

Georgie:  If it’s something small and it goes wrong, you can just ignore it or laugh it off – and, in fact, most people probably won’t notice anyway – but with an illusion the size of the sub trunk, you can’t afford the slightest mistake.

Richard:  I’ve been on the wrong end of that prop, as have many magicians! What you’re looking at here is a broken nose, which happened many years ago on that lovely piece of equipment.

Georgie:  Blimey! In front of an audience?

Richard:  Oh yes, and of course I was the last person to know, because you don’t feel pain until you get off stage. There was the front row all going, “Urgg!”.

Georgie:  Gosh, that must have hurt, once you realised. But I suppose it’s those moments that remind the audience these illusions are not as easy as they look.

Richard:  That’s a positive spin.

Georgie:  I very much liked Michelle [Richard’s assistant in the Sideshow]. Have you worked together for a long time?

Richard:  She’s been with us for three years now. Yes, Michelle is great, very easy to work with. She does a fantastic job.

Georgie:  And what about Soft Cabaret [the duo currently appearing with Richard in Late Night Magic]. Have you known them for long? How did they come to be in your show?

Richard:  Now that’s another area of my work. During the early years of my career I was talking about, when I was working on cruise ships, in hotels and so on, an agency called Trevor George Entertainments looked after my date sheet. Trevor and Billie George, lovely people, became part of my family. Then, about 10 or 12 years ago, their daughter took over the agency, a lady called Anne George, who is also a magician. We both used to play old-time music halls and variety shows together, produced by Billie and Trevor George, who also headlined these shows as master of ceremonies and with a phenomenal mind-reading act.

When I changed path, we kept in contact and what I do for them now is I act as consultant for new magic acts and variety acts. Between me and Anne, we’re always keeping our eye on what could be nurtured, raw talent that we can make into a product for her to sell to her clients. Soft Cabaret was one of our finds. We give the new acts the benefit of our knowledge and experience, without changing their personas or their characters, and we guide them into a new work pattern.

Georgie:  I thought they were fantastic, I really enjoyed the show.

Richard:  Yes, theirs is really a variety act and I am developing the magic side of it, introducing magic and illusion elements to their madcap world.

Georgie:  But you have different guest acts every season, is that right?

Richard:  Yes. The next season features the stunning dove-magic act from Oliver Tabor, and there is a weird severed-arm illusion that I am currently building, which presents the renowned any-card–at-any-position effect. It’s a very weird sight. This will be season eleven.

Georgie:  I think putting on three different shows in three days, as you regularly do, is extremely impressive. Do you ever get any time off?

Richard:  I generally work seven days a week: 6 nights of Mamma Mia a week (8 shows), up to 12 matinée magic shows a week, which includes the Sunday Magic Cavern matinée, taking me up to the seventh working day a week. Late night shows every Friday on top of that. Building props and trying to encourage and develop as many cabaret acts as possible.

My workload a few years ago was stupid. I needed to reduce the workload without affecting the momentum, so I auditioned for someone to present The Magic Cavern show, which would allow me to take a shift off occasionally. I taught David Major this production and it took six months but it was worth every ounce of energy because I could work three Sundays and David could do the fourth. Also, during school holidays, we put on extra shows because of his involvement.

David’s a great talent and very different from me; he brings his own personality to the show. He’s got a very sharp sense of humour, whereas I’m a fairly calm, serious performer. David has been with me for three years now, I guess.

Then what happened was, about eight months ago, Anne (of Trevor George Entertainments) asked me if I would consider duplicating the props for The Magic Cavern show and for David to go out on the cabaret circuit, since the show is so well suited to small hotels and lounges on cruise ships. I did that and David had his first engagement about a month ago. There’s tons of demand for the show and David’s going to be very, very busy. He is creating a reputation for himself with the touring cabaret version of The Magic Cavern show, which is working more and more, but the downside for me is that I’m losing my back-up at the theatre.

Georgie:  You’ll have to find somebody else.

Richard: When I have time to do more auditions. It’s one of those vicious circles. But a circle which will have to be broken again, as I’m finding I’m starting to schedule in less shows at the old place, to maintain a degree of a life for myself outside of the working environment.

If any of your readers sees an advert for third cover at The Magic Cavern, please do get in touch. It’s a great opportunity for the right person.

Georgie:  And is it just because you’re always so busy that you don’t get involved in the magic community?

Richard:  Yes, that’s down to time. I work at three levels: performing, creating and doing the eight shows a week, at the moment, of Mamma Mia.

Georgie:  And that’s not including all the consulting and franchising and other things you do.

Richard:  Yes, it’s a lot. But it’s a good balance and I wouldn’t want to lose any aspect of my working life, to be honest. I enjoy the diversity of projects and shows, at all levels.

I try to keep the creativity flowing on top of the performing. Two new productions in development at the moment. I’ve got a new show opening at the back end of 2009.

Georgie:  A whole new show?

Richard:  Well, it’s an old show, really. I’ve got three shows running at the moment open to the public, as you know, and on the shelf I’ve got another 12 or so, varying from small magic shows up to big illusion shows. I’ve now found a venue that’s going to take one of them off the shelf. It’s a studio theatre underneath the Leicester Square theatre, where I can present this new show every Saturday at 3 o’clock.

Georgie:  What sort of show is it?

Richard:  It’s called Card Symphony. The magician plays the part of the conductor of an orchestra of cards. Set in a miniature but fully functional toy theatre, where the orchestra are playing cards, the stage technicians are playing cards, the dancers on stage are playing cards. The magician presents card tricks to classical music which are ‘staged’ with the devices of scenery, miniature lighting, automation, special effects from within that model theatre.

Magically, it is technically demanding. Presentationwise, it has great novelty value and, from earlier trials of this format, it has strong entertainment value.

Georgie:  That sounds amazing!! I’ll definitely come and see it and I imagine thousands of other people will too.

Richard:  I do hope so.

Georgie:  You’d better get ready now, you’re on in about 10 minutes. I can’t believe how laid-back you are!

You can read more about Richard Leigh’s magic shows on this website and you can find out even more, see some videos and buy tickets on Richard’s website: