Successfully Stuck in the Past and Making Real Progress
The Magic Circle Centennial Christmas Show
Review by John Derris
Every year for the past few years over twelve hundred people send money twelve weeks in advance of the opening of the annual Magic Circle Christmas Show They're not magicians. They're not nuts. They are ordinary folk with families who enjoy seeing what is deemed by some as old fashioned magic by elderly gentlemen who do card tricks on a Monday night. And this is no one-off event boosted by some clever P.R. campaign. It's a sell-out year after year with many of them enthusiastically coming back again and again.
Perhaps it's because they prefer what some would call traditional magic. Girls produced from boxes, doves plucked from the air and a member from the audience floating unsuspended in mid air. Perhaps they are not so keen on seeing a girl give birth to a rabbit on stage or the vanishing of a mobile phone later recovered from inside a man's stomach or the raising of the dead. Some may like it but I couldn't possibly comment.
But this continuing aesthetic and commercial success in Stephensons Way is not unique to the premier magical society. The Davenport dynasty with a hundred years of experience and heritage behind them are also successfully repeating such traditional fayre with their Davenport Christmas Wonder Show in the middle of Norfolk. A show led by mercurial performer and producer Roy Davenport with magic, music, dance and novelty that filled the theatre last year, this year and surely well into the future. Critically acclaimed by the Norwich Press also the eagle eye of talented Andy Nyman, magician and stage director of the highly successful Derren Brown Show, it surely points to the growing demand for live quality magic on stage by millions of jaded TV viewers growing a little tired of extreme and bizarre entertainment demanded by producers desperate for ratings at any price.
And so it was this year at The Magic Circle. As said earlier a sell-out three months in advance and a family type audience at which this annual show is aimed. Not a kiddy winkies show but a magic show with close-up, illusions, novelty and parlour magic from an international line up of performers whose ages ranged from 16 years to 70 plus. Master of Ceremonies was Peter Greenwood, droll, po-faced but with a Yorkshire delivery of funnies and tricks that can whoop up any audience be it the Winter Gardens at Blackpool or The Centre for the Magic Arts in London. He introduced young Jonathan Shotton, finalist in The Magic Circle Young Magician of the Year 2005 whose yellow and black themed act gets better and better with doves, cards, candles, silks, canes and closing with the production of a giant bird cage complete with parakeet. He won an excellent response not occasioned by his youth or courage but by the sheer quality of his fast developing act.
Next was John Archer. (John Archer in a show with a liberal sprinkling of children?) In my view the top comedy magician in Britain today whose sight and sound gags employ no bad taste, expletives or off colour material and whose nimble brain can work an audience into a conference of fun that includes children as well as their parents. Why this performer is not a regular on TV when I often see inferior talent drawing huge rewards is something I don't understand. Watch out for his break through. It will come. John is not only an outstanding comedian but his magic is of the highest quality. Tell me of anyone in magic today who can do a Magic Square routine with outstanding, original humour that is genuinely 200% entertaining. Add to that Balloon Swallowing and a Book Test plus his considerable comedic talent and personality and you have one of the most entertaining acts around today. He lifted the roof in Stephensons Way.
An interval in which the audience enjoyed really close-up magic with Phil Banks, Dennis Patten, Rob Page, Richard Sanders, Stephen Barry, Sam Clarke, David Tomkins and yours truly as well as visits to the famed Magic Circle museum.
Back on stage Peter Greenwood introduce a magician from the USA, Denny Haney. I thought I recognized that puckish, fun-filled face but couldn't quite place it. Of course. It was the guy whose fun ads are displayed on the rear covers of the American magic magazines advertising the magic wares of Denny & Lee. And the flavour of his advertisements completely captures the personality of this performer. Looking like a vaudevillian (which he was) in dinner suit with black and white checkerboard slippers (his agent told him to dress differently from all the other professional magicians performing in vaudeville, so he chose slippers!). No props on stage but he immediately engaged with the audience presenting a very smooth Malini Egg Bag routine culminating with the production of a glass of whisky. A cane and a hat changed to a table and he performed card manipulations and productions but in a style that underlined his many years of working professionally in theatres. A former Vietnam war veteran he took leave in London and met Ken Brooke who sold and taught him the original Multiplying Martini Bottles with which he closed his act. A solid, fun, entertaining magic act that added a real international flavour to the bill.
Many people had never seen anything like the next act. Imported from Belgium, Hans Davis presented hand shadows, Victorian perhaps in concept but enthusiastically and warmly applauded for the sheer skill and novelty in these days of electronic wizardry. The best I'd seen up to this artiste was perhaps Edward Victor and Raoul who performed in "Westminster Wizardry" way back in the 50's but Hans Davis was equally excellent. I've seen shadow performers grasp a cardboard cut-out of Winston Churchill and stick out their finger for a cigar but this act employed nothing but his two hands. It was original, creative and most imaginative covering shadows of celebrities, animals, birds and others all complete with a well scored sound track. Come again Hans.
Closing the show was Scott Penrose, now a fully-fledged, full time professional and consultant who has successfully migrated from the finance industry in the City of London to the theatres and TV and film studios of the world. In the past I've enthused about his prize-winning stage act that contained much original, self- contained magic cloaked in sartorial elegance, but now he has blossomed with a new stage format of front cloth routines and stunning illusions. He now has a class and style that reminds me of the stage presentations of Dante and Robert Harbin and its delightful to see this performer emerging as one of our best and leading stage magicians.
His effects and routines are visual delights and include a production of his assistant Aila from a cage, a levitation with a member of the audience with both chairs removed and the repeated use of a solid hoop to prove the absence of outside support, a stunning Cube Box illusion a la Zig Zag and a stage-filling snowstorm finale. These illusions were interspersed with front cloth presentations which included his own Gipsy Thread routine, spinning yo-yos that change to silks, a tumbler of liquid which changes to a silk to reveal a selected card and a delightful Linking Ring routine with a dove perched on one of the rings throughout. The choice of music and the originality of the presentation of this effect was outstanding and it was sheer poetry to watch although Scott , a man a real integrity, later advised me that the idea was first dreamed up by a Dutch magician. Scott Penrose makes most of his illusions himself and his knowledge, respect for the history of magic and past magicians and sheer attention to detail marks him one of Britain's leading stage performers.
That was it. Full houses every night, booming sales at The Magic Circle Shop and departing members of the audience already booking for next year! True! It takes nearly forty willing members of the Circle to stage this annual success story, produced by Peter Scarlett and under the direction of Chris Pratt who each year scours the world for new and unusual magic and variety entertainment. We must be getting something right.
© John Derris, January 2006