There are so many disclaimers in the advertising and signage stating emphatically that Derren Brown is NOT appearing in Unbelievable that I half-expected it to be a double bluff, and for the much-loved mentalist and illusionist to make a surprise appearance on the Criterion’s stage. He doesn’t, but so engaging is the ensemble for this multifaceted new variety show, co-created by Brown with regular collaborators Andrew O’Connor and Andy Nyman, all of whom share directing duties, that you may not miss him all that much.
A co-production with the Mercury Theatre Colchester, where it played a short season before hitting London, Unbelievable is a celebration of stage magic and illusion, featuring a hardworking troupe of actor-musicians who have learnt how to perform sleight-of-hand tricks and mind-bending mental feats, especially for this show, while also playing instruments and working the crowd. The most familiar to regular theatregoers is likely to be Simon Lipkin, whose off-kilter charm, sense of irreverent fun, and innate ability to connect with an audience make him a natural master of ceremonies. He also gets to sing rather wonderfully, particularly during a cheeky patter song about turning water into prohibition liquor (while also performing that actual trick, to the delight of several drinkers in the front stalls), that suggests somebody needs to build a revival of The Music Man around him as soon as is humanly possible.
Unbelievable lacks any conceivable structure and half-heartedly peddles the running theme that our collective downfall is comparing our internal lives with other people’s carefully curated outer ones – hardly a revelation in these social media-obsessed times – but it does feel like a breath of fresh air in the West End. There’s simply nothing else like it playing in the capital right now: a family-friendly revue with countless “how on earth did they do that?!” moments, and a lot of audience participation.
That audience participation is one of its greatest USPs but also, unfortunately, one of its biggest drawbacks. Presumably to prove that these members of the public aren’t ‘plants’, five or six of them have to be involved almost every time someone from the crowd is hauled up onstage to take part in a trick. This inevitably leads to a certain amount of repetition, boredom even, as the same ground is covered time and time again; one’s heart sinks a bit as the overlong evening draws on and somebody is picked from the middle of a row or one of the upper levels and it’s clear it’ll take them quite some time to even get to the stage. Similarly, the problem with a plethora of mind-reading gags, even the fairly gargantuan one that closes out the show, is that after a certain point, it’s only really that fascinating or astonishing if it’s YOUR mind being read, or your personal business being alluded to.
Still, there’s quite a lot here to enjoy, especially the rough-and-ready band, each of whom has a robust individual personality, and Simon Wainwright’s delightfully colourful video design. Yolanda Ovide has a charming routine involving the catchment of a helium balloon in a bowl, with the help of a wrapt nine-year-old on press night, that crosses the border into old-school clowning. Hannah Price’s piano-playing conduit for the untold songs going through the heads of a number of punters is very entertaining, as the roving cameras capture the genuine amazement on the faces of the selected audience members.
Technically, Brown, O’Connor and Nyman’s multimedia staging is impressive, and the cast sell it for all it’s worth. The lack of real substance would perhaps be less obvious if the whole thing was shorter and sharper, or if it wasn’t performed in a traditional proscenium arch theatre. However, there’s probably enough humour, glitz and moments of sheer wonder here to make audiences feel like they’ve got their money’s worth. Meandering but entertaining, and, I suspect, a solid commercial hit.