Praise be to Derren Brown. In the middle of the West End, the television mindreader has turned miracle maker. He’s waving his hands in the air and invoking the Lord. He’s palming people’s foreheads until they faint to the floor. He’s speaking in tongues – And Lo: Cat’s asthma has cleared up. IT’S A MIRACLE. Robyn’s dodgy leg has stopped hurting. MIRACLE. The crick in Becky’s neck has gone. GET BEHIND ME, DERREN. HALLOWED BE THY NAME.
If all that sounds sceptical, it both should and it shouldn’t. Brown’s second half riffs on the evangelical healers that tour the world, America in particular, and as he tells us repeatedly, it’s all a huge scam. Men like the silvery, permatanned Pastor Benny Hinn rake in donations by the bucket-truck-load – up to $100 million a year – preying on faith and desperation.
With a West End audience, Brown doesn’t have such things to lean on. Indeed, every time he drops into the language of religion, he does so mischievously, with a wry smirk our way. Even so, he achieves the self-same effects. The sick claim to be cured. Tight chests breathe easy. The short-sighted see clearly. You know it’s all trickery and technique – Brown constantly insists as much – yet you’ve no idea what’s going on, how he’s pulling this off. (Part of me would have enjoyed an explanation. Part of me loved not knowing.)
What does Brown have? A different kind of faith – a kind of faithful scepticism. We know there’s a rational explanation, we just don’t know what that is, and, as Brown races this way and that, healing ailments at random like some NHS wizard, so much happens at once that you’ve no time to verify anything. It’s brilliantly discombobulating – even if the effect fades shortly afterwards.
This is the thing about liveness: you can look back later on and see where you were duped. You can spot what you’ve swallowed and when you got swept away. It’s not that Brown isn’t extremely talented. Quite the opposite: all that takes real skill – just not the skills he tells you about. It’s showmanship – and Brown’s a master showman. (Showman/shaman – interesting…) He has a real knack for making an old vaudevillian art-form feel fresh and contemporary, using video animations and close-up camerawork to great effect.
Early on, Brown says he’s built his career on two skills alone: the ability to pluck a thought from our heads, and the ability to put thoughts in there in the first place. That’s not even remotely true.
For starters, Brown can act – I mean, he can really act. Watching him live, you realise how absolutely in control he is and yet, he plays the opposite masterfully. When an unexpectedly surreal answer pops out of an audience member’s mouth, it seems to take him aback momentarily. He trips on his words, scoffs a tiny faux corpse and accepts the choice disbelievingly – knowing full well it’s written down on a post-it-note inside an orange in a combination safe that he FedExed to Tibet last year or something.
Second, and this is what makes him so good, he has a director's eye (and a sharp collaborator in Andy Nyman). Brown doesn’t just pull his tricks off, he frames them impeccably, demonstrating the danger, be it genuine or apparent, and so upping both risk and adrenaline. One classic routine – supposedly banned in 17 countries – is preceded by a video montage of it’s going repeatedly wrong. Hand after hand slams down on a nine-inch nail. The sense of danger skyrockets. Brown slams his hand down.
It’s a strange watch, Miracle. At one level, it’s just a man proving himself right on repeat. At another, it’s a crack display of theatrical control: from the atmospheric flickering candles to the authoritative audience manipulation. At another still, it’s a complete headspin – thrilling, confounding and delirious. Praise be, indeed.