By name and by nature: The new show from illusionist Derren Brown, which hits the West End after a ten-month tour, is a hair-raising two-hour show of theatre. It’s moving, thrilling and contains some of the most supernatural sights I’ve ever seen on stage.
It all starts with a man framed in a pool of light. He answers his phone – and immediately collapses like an abandoned puppet. So… well, if I gave more, it would spoil the fun. Besides, I don’t want to find out what unconscious conditioning Brown has ensnared talkative critics.
Suffice it to say, Showman’s talismanic spirit is American impresario PT Barnum. He coined the phrase “There’s a sucker born every minute”, and was the inspiration for the musical film starring Hugh Jackman. But even more charmingly, he also popularized a lavish, big-hearted form of theater.
As his previous Svengali and Enigma tours have proven, Brown obviously loves Barnum’s late-Victorian counterfeit world. There are no blooms of ectoplasm or noisy liquor cabinets, but the same atmosphere presides. As with the best ghost stories, Brown uses gags and revelations like dungeons: stumbling upon them makes you wonder how we got here — and how we’ll get out of it.
In this, the Apollo Theater is a wonderful accomplice. Decorated in dark wood and muted gold like Miss Havisham’s powder room, it’s just room for the weirdness that turns the table. Spreading out into the freezing night of Soho, still buzzing with what we had seen, felt wonderfully appropriate. Forget the panto, it’s the most festive show in town.
But what exactly is the show? The first half follows Brown’s usual mix of numbers games, card tricks and mesmerism. There’s a lot of interaction with the audience – but don’t worry, only the most flexible of minds show up on stage; I was never chosen. Such close-up magic is Brown’s craft. As a performer, he understands the efficacy of eerie pools of silence just as much as the need to cut through his avuncular crackle with a sequence of deliciously camped malevolence.
However, the tone changed in the second half. The pace slows down and becomes more introspective. It’s bumpy at first, especially after the over-the-top bravado of the opening hour. But beneath the panache, it becomes clear that Brown has bigger themes in mind – grief, family and the question of what we leave behind gradually come together in an unanticipated and touching finale. In some ways, that should come as no surprise: Brown’s career has strayed away from the flashy machismo of his earlier slugfests and apocalyptic hyperbole; his act is now calmer, more domestic, in keeping with his philosophical self-help books.
Nevertheless, it is unexpected to see the difficulties of existence approached in such a shameless and sentimental way. “It’s the things that seem so isolating that bring us together,” Brown concludes. If Showman has a message, then it’s this: acceptance is worth making a song and dancing to. And if things don’t always go as planned, well, that’s life.
Until March 18. Tickets: 0330 333 4812; derrenbrown.co.uk