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The Illusionists: Suspend your disbelief for magic's magnificent seven
Tim Hughes gets up close to a show that’s putting magic back on the world map - and which is now heading to Oxford's New Theatre
STRIPPED to the waist, chained at the ankles, handcuffed and padlocked to a restraint brace, Andrew Basso has every right to look nervous.
“I require only two things to escape,” he tells us. “A pin to pick the locks... and luck!”
As his chains are attached to a winch, he is lifted upside down and, after a few deep breaths, is lowered into an overflowing glass tank of water – and locked in.
We watch, holding our own breaths as the Italian escapologist re-enacts one of the greatest stunts of all time – the Chinese water torture cell, first perfected by the great Harry Houdini a century ago.
Basso, 27, makes deft work unpicking his locks, appearing to dislocate his bones as he wriggles free of his restraints. Then, to our horror, he drops the pin. He panics, water sloshing across the stage as he twists, arms out scouring the base of the tank.
In the wings, here in the slick surroundings of the Dubai World Trade Centre, stagehands stand by with sledge hammers, ready to shatter the tank should they receive the signal.
To the audience’s relief Basso recovers the pin, the stocks are released and, he emerges breathless and hollow-chested to a rapturous ovation from the crowd – among them the country’s ruler, the immaculately robed Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who smiles, nodding in quiet approval.
Basso’s stunt – it’s not a trick, he tells me later – is one of the highpoints of a show which has quite reasonably been described as the best magic show on the planet.
“It’s extreme escapology,” he says. “People have died doing it, and I have had to be rescued before. So the audience are not just spectating, they are there with me, holding their breath.”
Consisting of seven of the world’s finest magicians, The Illusionists is the magic world’s equivalent of a rock and roll supergroup. Each performer has their own large following, touring the world and with residencies in the glitziest spots in Las Vegas. Basso, who calls himself ‘The Escapologist’, is joined by ‘The Anti Conjurer’, a young American goth called Dan Sperry with a taste for the macabre; ‘The Inventor’, Californian Kevin James, a self-styled ‘mad scientist’ who has invented many of the world’s most mind-boggling tricks for the likes of David Copperfiield; ‘The Trickster’ Jeff Hobson, a master of slight of hand who also acts as the show’s comic relief – having the audience in stitches with camply outrageous banter; and ‘The Mentalist’ Londoner Philip Escoffey, the world’s greatest mindreader. The ‘magnificent Seven’ are completed by a traditional double act: ‘The Enchantress’ Jinger Leigh and ‘The Gentlemen’, Mark Kalin. They are joined by a talented band ‘Z’ – who made their name playing for hip-hop stars Nas and Kanye West.
For the man behind The Illusionists, creative director Simon Painter, it’s a unique experience not just for audiences, but for the performers, who are now embarking on the British leg of their tour, with a show at Oxford’s New theatre on Wednesday.
“I had the idea a few years ago while I was working at the Sydney Opera House,” says the softly-spoken Englishman.
“I came with the concept of putting on the world’s greatest magic show – The Avengers of magic! I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I wanted to bring together the world’s greatest magicians and illusionists and team them up with a great rock band. The idea worked and we’ve been travelling for almost two years.”
Before reaching the Middle East, the steam-punk style show has had jaws dropping everywhere from Australia to Mexico and Singapore. After the UK the crew move on to Europe before hitting Broadway some time next year.
“The essence of the show was to demonstrate each illusionist’s art but make it thoroughly entertaining from beginning to end. We want to produce a larger than life spectacle – and show that magic is back!
“It has enormously wide appeal. It’s a show that will appeal to five-year-old kids, married couples and grandparents. Teenagers mob Dan after the show, the ladies all love Andrew and the men like Jinger. And not a lot of people are offended.
“It evolves a lot as we travel but our bread and butter is our amazing cast; everyone is a master in their field.”
The show is high impact with little let up, the artists making a train appear on stage, slicing a man’s body into two separately moving parts, cutting through a woman, and even making it snow – which in sweltering Dubai, where the temperature even in the evening hits 40 degrees centigrade, causes a huge stir.
“I do weird and freaky stuff” says Dan ‘The Anti Conjurer’, who at one point appears to slice dental floss through his neck. “Some people like to use magic to make you feel good, but I like to scare people too – a bit like Willy Wonka.”
For Simon, another highlight is the more understated set by Philip ‘The Mentalist’ Escoffey – whose mindreading skills have led many to believe he has special powers.
“He’s the world’s leading mentalist and mindreader,” says Simon. “I know how many of these tricks work but not his – and he won’t tell me.”
“My passion is the psychology of belief and need,” is Simon’s riposte. “It’s about holding a mirror up to the audiences beliefs and show how ridiculous it can be. No one who watches a man make a handkerchief disappear asks whether he’s really transcending molecular science; they know it’s a trick. But with mindreading people want to believe it and wonder how it might happen.”
“It’s a circus of magic,” Simon says proudly.
“If people want to have an incredible night out at the theatre, to laugh out loud and be amazed by a larger than life variety show with special effects and music, they’ll love it. The show is unashamedly over the top. It’s also a comedy rock and roll show with tricks.
Would I also call it a freakshow? Definitely!”
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