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Wonderville Magic & Illusion at the Palace Theatre - review

An impressive troupe of illusionists take to the stage

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Josephine Lee and the ensemble
© Pamela Raith

Aside from the talent and the fact that if there's a section you're not really enjoying you can be reasonably certain that in a few minutes there'll be another bit you'll like better, the marvellous thing about a variety show like Wonderville: Magic & Illusion is that it truly does provide something for everyone: it's entertainment for the whole family.

At the performance I attended, a small child in my row gurgled with delight and gasped in awe at some of the illusions and was held spellbound when a different child of roughly similar age was picked from the audience to help with magic tricks. Earlier, a gang of hipsterish types guffawed with mirth when one of their party was forced on stage to be (almost) humiliated by manically laconic compère and uncanny mind-reader Chris Cox. Meanwhile, a middle-aged Dad applauded and whooped so wildly at some of the scantily clad female speciality acts that it was hard to believe he'd almost dozed off during much of the rest of the show.

My favourite sequences involved illusionists Young & Strange, a hilariously mismatched duo (one is elegantly long-limbed, the other looks a bit like Matt Lucas in a fright wig) whose onstage shtick revolves around mutual disdain, a shared obsession with magic superstars Siegfried & Roy, some seriously impressive tricks, and a couple of rictus-like grins that seem to suggest it could all go horribly wrong at any moment. They are incredibly endearing, deceptively ingenious, and their second act tribute to their Vegas heroes, performed to a thunderous ‘80s soft rock soundtrack, is as funny as it is inexplicable.

If not everything reaches the same heights of comic bliss and open-mouthed amazement, that is partially because a venue the size of the Palace is maybe not the best setting for the sort of sleight-of-hand magic tricks, involving props like playing cards, ping pong-sized balls and live birds, that would probably seem pretty stunning in an intimate cabaret or supper club.

Chris Cox in Wonderville: Magic & Illusion
© Pamela Raith

MC Chris Cox does a nice line in wired, self-deprecating comedy and his mind-reading appears genuine and jaw-dropping, though after the first couple of victims/participants it gets a bit samey, especially if you don't personally know the audience members involved so have no idea if he's getting true information out of them or not. Elsewhere there are a couple of moments where the show takes itself a bit too seriously: a history of the mistrust and abuse of women gifted with special powers, centred on statuesque Josephine Lee with her flamboyantly presentational performance style and set to a portentous, Eurovision-style backing track overlaid with Lee's own, slightly flat, voiceover, threatens at times to tip over into unintentional comedy, despite the ingenuity of the illusions on offer.

Annabel Mutale Reed's enjoyably rough-around-the-edges, moodily lit production would probably work better in a smaller house or a spiegeltent, with Justin Williams' light bulb festooned unit set occasionally looking a touch incongruous plonked down in the midst of the Harry Potter decor. The show is longer than it needs to be too: an only intermittently exciting two hours would, I think, benefit from trimming some fat and distilling into a fleeter, more spellbinding interval-free 80 minutes.

Stilll, Wonderville is a welcome addition to the summer theatrical possibilities for families who want to experience a live show en masse but don't fancy seeing a musical. We spent most of the journey home debating whether some of the audience members who are hauled out of their seats to take part are plants or not. Despite a few lacklustre moments, the show is mostly and ultimately a lot of fun with more than its fair share of "how did they do that?!" moments.