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Derren Brown - Svengali

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Derren Brown’s new show, Svengali, contains all the clever trickery you’d expect from the UK’s best-known illusionist. Unfortunately, we were appealed to in such plaintive terms not to tell the secrets of the show last night, that I'm too fearful of incurring Brown's wrath to tell you any more about it. This is the man, after all, who proven himself quite talented at making people behave exactly as he wants.

Brown’s stage persona is very likeable, his relationship with the audience, both as a whole and when it comes to engaging with people individually, based on gentle jibes and good-natured humiliation. Whether he’s putting someone on the spot to extract their most embarrassing secret confession for the audience’s amazement and amusement, or telling us the spooky history of the automaton that gives the show its name, Brown’s manner ensures that genuine laughs come readily.

The illusionist and his co-writers, Iain Sharkey and Stephen Long, along with director Polly Findlay – who comes, as Brown’s programme note has it, “from the land of proper grown-up theatre” – deserve praise for show’s varied and inventive structure. Tricks involving the entire audience are interspersed with those that use just one or two people, and Brown is constantly employing unexpected devices - balloons, Frisbees, a wide-beam torch - that mean the pace very rarely falters.

Much of the show involves the use of close camera work, essential when it comes to drawing the audience’s attention to certain scenarios (and therefore away from others). It’s cleverly done, so doesn’t detract from the action, but is a reminder that Brown’s success owes a great deal to his skill as an entertainer on television.

Brown has always been keen to stress the fact that what he does is a combination of suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship, rather than anything occult or supernatural. What’s so successful about Svengali though, is that while pointing this out, and presenting us with illusions that are clearly a result of years of practice ‘reading’ people, Brown sends a chill down our spines by giving us a taste of the uncanny and amazing us with tricks that are simply beyond our capacity to work out. 

Brown fans will be impressed of course, but this show has a pleasing theatricality about it that will also appeal to a wider audience. He may have made his name on television, but with this show, Brown proves that he's not too shabby as a live performer either.


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