Unbelievable – Criterion Theatre, London

Reviewer: Sonny Waheed

Writers & Directors: Derren Brown, Andy Nyman and Andrew O’Connor

Magic is back at the West End. The team behind Derren Brown’s live shows have decided to spread its wings and bring the particular brand of illusionary showmanship to more mainstream trickery. If you’re looking for wand-waving and abracadabras, look elsewhere. In this new co-production between Mercury Theatre Colchester and Unbelievable Productions, tricks and illusions you will have seen before are given a new contemporary lease of life.

Long gone are the top-hatted and cape-wearing magicians of old. Now we have a septet of performers decked out in tailored three-piece suits adding to their conjuring duties by playing musical instruments. And ‘performers’ is the operative word here. Surprisingly, all the cast are primarily actors or musicians. None, according to the programme, seems to have any experience in magic, illusion or anything remotely connected to the ‘dark arts’.

So what we’re seeing is a finely choreographed set of illusions. And finely crafted they are. In opening the proceedings we are shown the age-old trick of a person disappearing and reappearing in a wardrobe. But this time, we’re shown how it’s done. And, with the help of an audience member, we’re given both the exposé of the trick and seeing someone experience the trick properly. And, as you might expect, it ends with a bit of magic that leaves you slack-jawed in disbelief. It’s very cleverly done and is a brilliant opener, combining illusion, audience participation, comedy, tension and education.

Fans of Derren Brown will feel a tinge of familiarity. The overall tone of the show, the focus on setting up tricks with storytelling and history lessons are all tropes Brown uses in his shows. The audience, again much like Brown’s shows, features heavily. Actually, they feature in every trick performed.

The tricks, in the main, are decent and provide the necessary sense of confusion or disbelief you’d expect from watching such a show. But it’s a mixed bag. The high point is, unfortunately, the wardrobe trick that opens the show. The low point is, equally unfortunately, the last trick of the show. This trick, which everyone is sworn to secrecy on, is not bad by any means, but it is so unbelievably amazing that you’re left feeling that it has to be a set-up. And, annoyingly, as it’s the last trick that feeling lingers long into the night.

There’s something wonderful about watching magic on stage. There’s a realness to it all that doesn’t get delivered when watching on TV. Unbelievable feels just like that. You’re watching things happen that you can’t believe is happening.

It’s slickly produced but somehow doesn’t feel as exciting as it could be. The production lacks the sort of spectacle of a Vegas show or the intimacy of a cabaret show. Some of the tricks, while impressive, feel a bit gimmicky. There’s one in particular where audience members put their hands on the shoulders of a lady playing a piano and she starts to play the song they’re thinking of. It’s impressive, no doubt, but the way it’s presented gives a niggling feeling that this could easily be pre-planned or manipulated.

Of course, this is all a trick, so everything is being controlled, but the joy of great magic is not feeling that you’re being manipulated. And that’s not the case with everything on display here.

Runs until 7 April 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Stylish trickery

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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