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Brief Encounter With … Derren Brown

Two years after his last, Olivier Award-winning live show, mystifying TV showman Derren Brown returns to the West End with a new evening of mind-reading wonders, opening this week at the Garrick Theatre.

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Trained as a lawyer, Derren Brown started performing in bars. His big break came in 1999 when Channel 4 asked him to put a show together for television. His first C4 programme, Mind Control, ran for three series and was followed by three series of Trick of the Mind and his latest, Trick or Treat, which begins its second series this month. One-off TV specials – Russian Roulette, Séance, Messiah, The Heist and The System – have attracted audiences and controversy.

Brown’s previous stage shows, Derren Brown Live and Something Wicked This Way Comes, both enjoyed West End seasons, and the latter won the 2005 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Entertainment. His latest stage offering, Derren Brown: An Evening of Wonders, arrives in London following an extensive tour.

You’re referred to as a magician, mind-reader and psychic amongst other things. What do you call yourself?
I was asked to put a label on it years ago in an interview and I said “psychological illusionist” so that’s the term I use. But it doesn’t really help because it doesn’t mean anything and it’s difficult to say after a couple of drinks. Where I am now has come from learning a lot of different skills. I started off as a hypnotist, worked for years as a magician and conjuror and then developed an interest in certain areas of psychology. So what I do now is an amalgam, and sometimes it’s a trick and sometimes it’s genuine. It allows me to debunk things like psychics without pushing my own answers down people’s throats. I make people understand that it definitely isn’t psychic or supernatural.

Do you actually read minds in your new show?
You can’t really go in to someone’s head and read their thoughts. However, you can go down other routes to get to the same point. You can play with suggestion and population stereotypes, knowing the things people tend to think about and how to plant ideas in their heads. If they’re responsive enough, they’ll pick up on those signals and think they have their own ideas. So you create the illusion of mind-reading.

In Derren Brown: An Evening of Wonders you aim to return to more traditional roots of magic entertainment, and in particular the mind-readers of the 1930s. Why that time period?
Once television kicked in, interest in vaudeville and that sort of low-brow theatre just died. But it was a real heyday for magic entertainment in the Thirties. For the late Victorians, science was changing a lot and was sort of indistinguishable from magic. As people started to understand science more, a new wave of mind-readers appeared and performances were more intimate and less about spectacle. You also had people who had lost loved ones in the war and wanted to make contact, which boosted the rise of spiritualism and psychics. All of this gave a general push towards mind-reading as entertainment. Aesthetically, it appealed to me to return to these roots, especially after my last live show, which was much more in the physical, carnival tradition. I wanted to get away from walking on glass and sticking needles in myself.

What do you like about working on stage?
Oh, everything. TV is wonderful, but it’s genuinely more enjoyable to be on stage, getting feedback from an audience and constantly improving little things. The routines I’ve taken from TV are so much better live. If you see me on TV, you never quite know how much you can trust. Seeing it live, I’m choosing audience members at random by throwing frisbees into the auditorium. Especially if you or someone you know is chosen, it’s a very different experience. You know it isn’t being faked. I also find it faintly embarrassing being that guy on TV. It’s not me and I don’t think I’d truly like to meet that person on the street. When people like David Tennant come on the TV show, people I warm to, I’m frustrated that the me they interact with isn’t really me, because I have a job to do. I’m more me on the stage.

Of course, there’s a lot you can’t control in a live show.
Yes! In the last show, I had people fainting, I had people vomiting on stage - someone literally shat themselves in the audience. I’m sure that was just the more squeamish or suggestible. But it is amazing to know people are reacting so viscerally. The new show is a bit dark and scary but also light-hearted and sometimes very funny.

Some of your TV specials have proved highly controversial. Is there anything that really offends you?
I don’t think offend is the right word, but I do get irritated by intellectual cowardice. People are welcome to believe what they want, but when they start trying to defend their beliefs – in spiritualism or whatever it might be – in a way that can’t even hold up to the logic of their own conversation, that annoys me. Especially when they talk in that sanctimonious way. I get so much of it because of what I do and it’s really frustrating. It’s not what people believe, it’s the way they handle it.

Would you ever consider acting?
I have thought of it. At the Spiderman 2 premiere party, someone from Marvel or the studio said they’d like me to audition for Dr Strange. And Woody Allen came to see my live show once because he was considering me for a role in a film he was making. But if I did act, I’d be more interested in theatre than film. I enjoy refining things night after night. At the moment, though, I’m doing so much, I want to stop any public stuff for awhile and just relax and paint.

A Guardian critic once described you as the “greatest dinner party guest in history”. Would Woody Allen be at your dream dinner party?
Woody Allen is fairly introverted. He ran off and didn’t want to meet me after my show so I don’t know if he’d be a good dinner guest. I would probably never organise a fancy party. I’d get too intimidated. I love the idea of meeting icons like Woody Allen and Anthony Hopkins, but I find big characters overpowering. I always feel dull and rubbish by comparison. I’ve only had one famous person over for dinner, that was Stephen Fry. He was potentially intimidating, but he was just so delightful it didn’t matter.

What’s your top trick for lay people who want to impress at parties?
It’s no trick: just be nice. The whole self-help culture is about setting goals to become more powerful, more confident, more this, more that. But I think the biggest life skill anyone can learn, what matters more than anything else and gets you further than anything else, is just to be lovely.

- Derren Brown was talking to Terri Paddock

Derren Brown: An Evening of Wonders runs at the West End’s Garrick Theatre from 7 May to 7 June 2008 (previews from 2 May). A version of this interview appears in the May issue of What’s On Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer), which is out now in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online edition. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatregoers’ Club - click here to subscribe now!!


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