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Review: The Illusionists (Shaftesbury Theatre)

The top magicians reconvene in London's West End

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
The Illusionists
©2014, Joan Marcus

The humble art of magic has certainly enjoyed an entertainment renaissance in recent years. Once seen as cheesy card tricks and holiday camp entertainment, the medium has had a change of branding and resurgence of popularity. In part this may be due to that little-known franchise Harry Potter, but the recurring crop of hopeful magicians on TV shows such as Britain's Got Talent has also changed our perception of what magic can be: dark, dangerous, and somewhat sexy.

There are no top hats and white rabbits in The Illusionists – Direct from Broadway. Instead, the seven world-class male magicians wear a new uniform of skinny jeans, leather, and sharp tailoring – staring right into the audience as if preparing for world domination. The main question is where are the female magicians? Sadly, the only females on stage are the ‘dancers' who wear fishnets and low-cut tops. Yawn.

The tricks themselves are pretty incredible – from French magician Enzo Weyne disappearing and reappearing at the speed of light, to the Manipulator's (Korea's Yu Ho-Jin) silent sleight-of-hand card tricks which are graceful and actually quite beautiful. The show features magicians who range in both the types of tricks and their performance style, which can make the show quite jarring. One minute I'm laughing at presenter Paul Dabek's audience patter and Lion King shadow puppetry (used to cover up a long scene change), the next I'm cringing at Chris Cox's awkward jokes whilst he reads the audience's minds; an impressive feat which is so uncanny it makes you wonder if the audience members are planted.

This variety of performance is both the strength and weakness of the show. On the one hand it's great to see such a range of tricks, but on the other it makes it difficult for the audience to know how to react. Is this supposed to be a family-friendly send-up, or an evening of danger and intrigue? By the end of the night, the audience seem to be having more fun waving at the camera – used to catch close-ups of the tricks – than they are invested in some of the riskier feats which require more attention.

Daredevil escapologist Jonathan Goodwin, who was a finalist in this year's Britain's Got Talent, reprises his buried alive performance which keeps the audience captivated, helped by the incredible sound design which stops halfway through the piece, genuinely making us wonder if something has gone wrong. This is tense stuff, and it's a shame there isn't more of this throughout the show.

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