New tricks - Magic on the Fringe
This article is from 2008.
Conjuring tricks and card chicanery may have long disappeared from our tellies, but as Claire Sawers discovers, the appeal of stage magic has never really gone away
It’s hard to believe now, but during the 80s, Paul Daniels was must-see television. Twenty years on, it may take more than the mantra, ‘pick a card, any card’ to keep an audience entertained, but stage magic still has the power to enthrall.
‘As human beings, we love retreating to that child-like sense of wonder,’ says Eric Walton, star of solo magic show Esoterica, which combines nimble-fingered card tricks with something he calls ‘really freaky mentalism’, where he uses clairvoyancy to get inside his audiences’ heads. ‘Magic allows us to go to a place where impossible things happen right in front of us. That’ll never get old.’
Walton’s act sits at the opposite end of the spectrum from the David Copperfield school of illusion, where entire trains disappear or men walk through walls. ‘Obviously it’s impressive to see a girl turn into a tiger or something,’ says Walton, who received rave reviews when he performed Esoterica off-Broadway. ‘But I prefer a low-tech, intelligent show with few bells and whistles. I like making my audience think.’ A friend of Walton’s described Esoterica as ‘magic for the hungry mind’, and between mind reading and memory feats, he throws in references to Eastern philosophy, Ancient Greece and Calvinism. When Walton asks a volunteer to ‘pick a card’, he wants to know ‘why did you pick that card?’ by introducing questions of destiny, free will and conscious volition.
Walton reckons modern audiences are looking for tricks presented in a fresh way and credits performers like David Blaine and Derren Brown for bringing credibility to magic. ‘They’ve given it a shot in the arm,’ says Walton. ‘They do magic that looks real, not melodramatic. There are no trap doors or CGI, it’s just a guy on a sidewalk.’
Both Blaine and Brown popped in to watch rehearsals when their friend Guy Hollingworth was preparing his show, The Expert at the Card Table. Hollingworth based the play around the book of the same name – which has become a bible to card cheats and sleight of hand artists around the world.
Written in 1902, it lifts the lid on casino scams and hustles and shows the reader – after years of practice – how to produce royal flushes from a shuffled deck, or win endlessly at Black Jack. ‘It’s a book that’s always been very controversial,’ says Hollingworth. ‘Casino owners were scared people would try and rip them off, and card cheats couldn’t believe someone was giving away their secrets.’ Hollingworth feels the recent explosion in poker (not to mention Harry Potter mania) has drawn a lot of new fans to magic. Poker fans love the idea that sleight of hand could give them an edge in a casino, or stop someone pulling a fast one in a game.
‘It’s the same reason why TV shows like The Real Hustle are popular,’ says Hollingworth. ‘It gives away secrets that are normally kept underground, and audiences love that. Magicians use red herrings and psychological tricks in the same way a con man does.’ Both Hollingworth and Walton insist they will never be found in Vegas or a cocktail bar testing out their skills. Hollingworth doesn’t like the idea of having his fingers chopped off by bosses at the Bellagio, and for Walton, it all comes down to pride. ‘If you’ve got that little going on that you need to get girls using magic, it’s time to change your cologne.’
Esoterica, Underbelly’s Baby Belly, 0844 545 8252, 2–24 Aug, 9.05pm, £10–£11. Previews 31 Jul & 1 Aug, £7; The Expert at The Card Table, Assembly Rooms, 623 3030, Aug 3–25, (not 11, 18), 3.35pm, £11–£12, (£10–£11). Previews Jul 31–Aug 2, £5.