Magicians are inherently nerds, regardless of whether or not they lean in to it in their shows. In the more interesting shows they might reveal their nerdiness about something other than magic, and Neil Kelso does in Sounds Impossible: A Musical Magic Show. His discussion of musical theory will probably be new to just about everyone in the audience, even those of us who learned piano casually as children. While the magic is itself impressive, it is a secondary aspect of the performance, enhancing the discussion and performance of music. This is to Kelso’s benefit, setting him apart and making for an especially interesting show.
The magic starts classically and visibly, with a trick that happens both in Kelso’s hands and in the hands of his audience members. However, a highlight of the show is the perfect combination of the musical and magical aspects in a card finding effect that uses the piano to find the cards. An audience member in the front row of the reviewed show had a satisfying reaction as the magic revealed itself, gasping loudly and clutching her partner’s arm. Seeing that Kelso can provoke this reaction in his audience is a reminder to frequent magic show attendees of how it feels to see these incredible feats for the first time.
Kelso evidentially knows at least as much about the history of pianos and music as he does about magic, and it’s great to get to hear some of this knowledge from him. He covers everything from historical differences in tuning standards—listing a few famous composers and describing how the instruments of their day would be tuned higher or lower than the one he plays on—to the effects of air pollution and recent research in to how to potentially counteract it, for example how living under a flight path might affect people. The magic draws people in, but once they are there they may wish that more of the performance were dedicated to this musical education.
Sounds Impossible: A Musical Magic Show does indeed sound impossible at first, but Kelso pulls off the premise and more. With a broad appeal, he gets people from both sides—impressing the magic fans with his breadth of music knowledge and the music fans with the magic tricks. He has a pretty universal appeal. Fans of either aspect of his performance will be sure to see something new.
The 2021 Fringe didn’t feel like a real Fringe, and there is a noticeable trend of some performers re-doing their prior shows for those who missed them last year. Alex Kouvatas joins them with his 2021 debut, Something is Missing. If he is a bit less popular this year it is probably because he was so popular last year, Edinburghers and regular Fringe-goers will have already seen him, plus apparent venue troubles may have resulted in difficulty in finding him. However, for those who manage to seek him out it is worth the effort.
With a small audience at the reviewed show, Kouvatas was able to get everyone involved. The first participant in particular was especially excited to join him, waving to her friends and posing for their cameras. The effect that she was involved in is a highlight, showcasing Kouvatas’s excellent ability to weave his tricks in to stories—in this case a magical, non-threatening take on William Tell shooting an apple off of someone’s head. While there is less of a theme running through the show this year, which is missed, that storytelling remains a strong point.
With his venue change, and falling victim to the small audience plague that is running rampant throughout this year’s Fringe, one would think that Kouvatas had more than enough misfortune to deal with. However, unfortunately at the reviewed show he also had trouble with his table, which dramatically broke part of the way through the show. He managed to play this off admirably well—the audience seemed to half expect him to wave a plastic wand and the table would restore itself. However, it was just a misfortune. Aside from the incident itself the show did not appear to suffer for the lack of the table.
Despite the misfortune surrounding this year’s iteration of Something is Missing, Kouvatas’s passion and showmanship shine through. He has clearly been hard at work, he no longer has to refer to a script and has a more consistently strong transition between tricks. While the theme and ideas behind the prior iteration are missed, these may be a casualty of the troubles Kouvatas faced this year. The overall improvement in his performance is noticeable. The show reviewed was towards the end of this year’s Fringe, but hopefully he has better luck next year. Kouvatas deserves to reach a wider audience.
Magicians like to give the impression that they control every last second of their shows, but the one thing that they can never fully control is their audience. On the day that The Greatest Magician was reviewed James Phelan spent a lot of his time playing whack-a-mole with unruly audience participants. His crowd control was a bit hit or miss, if he was a little sharp with the odd individual the audience as a whole generally felt that they deserved it, this did seem to affect the kind of people who volunteered to join him, which may have exacerbated the issue. Nevertheless, through all of this Phelan managed to keep the audience on his side and get through a series of impressive tricks.
The audience management was probably the more impressive feat. Phelan had audience participants misunderstanding his instructions, he invited up wannabe comedians… it was the full range of troublesome participants. While getting understandably a bit annoyed at first, by the end of the show he was handling this with grace. He allowed the self-appointed comedian to tell his joke, “I went in to a spaghetti restaurant and tried to steal some spaghetti, but there was a security guard and I couldn’t get pasta”, before inviting him to leave the stage. And he ran through as many participants as necessary for his initial card trick, patiently waiting to find enough participants sober enough to help him out—surprisingly a difficult task on a Friday afternoon (you can add in a joke about Scottish drinking culture if you’d like).
Magically, Phelan describes the inspiring influence of his uncle, Paul Daniels. His adorable childhood photos are a highlight regardless of whether or not the viewers previously knew of Daniels. Hearing about a magician’s childhood inspiration to perform magic is not unusual, but the way Phelan connects it to his tricks is especially satisfying. Phelan’s trick involving making his participants forget how to read is fun to watch. However, after he follows it up with a story about performing this effect on a teacher who told him he would never make it as a magician the audience surely appreciates it even more.
Whether or not Phelan is truly The Greatest Magician is up for the audience to decide, but he is definitely a resilient performer. Managing to keep his show on track in spite of numerous attempts to derail it, however lightheartedly, can not be easy. Phelan will impress his audience no matter how much they might try to resist.
Arron Jones performs a few pieces of scary magic in his One Hour Straightjacket Escape Magic Show, but perhaps the scariest feature is how much of the show is left in the hands of his audience participants. This presents an interesting unstated theme. Like all magicians Jones presumably put a lot of effort in to creating this show, and from the start he places his trust in these strangers—albeit strangers who wandered in to the back of a pub just to see him—to carry out the bulk of the fulfillment of his creation. It’s a kind of wholesome, calculated laziness.
The only people who will be disappointed with this show will be those who genuinely wanted to watch a man struggle to escape a straightjacket for a full hour—while Jones does eventually make his way out, the majority of the hour is spent with him apparently content to be tied up. Those of us hoping for creatively themed magic under this unusual self-imposed restriction will have no complaints.
By and large Jones’s trust in his audience is justified. Anyone who has tried to talk someone else through a new task will know the sheer variety of unpredictable ways that people mess up at unfamiliar instructions, and Jones does indeed come up against this—early on in the reviewed show. He deals with this well enough, not breaking character, and the participant in question both has a good time and eventually figured out how to do the task requested of him.
A highlight is a card trick that culminates in an assisted striptease for an exciting reveal. The participant chosen for this looked thrilled to be helping him. Like most of us, she had been enjoying Jones’s custom music that accompanied a lot of his set up and transition times, and her visible enthusiasm made her a fantastic choice to share the stage with him.
The risk of going to a show titled as One Hour Straightjacket Escape Magic Show is that it turns in to a repetitive rehashing of the magician escaping from various binds. Jones does not fall in to this category, instead having put together one of the most creative of the magazine-style magic shows at this fringe. The straightjacket restricts his movements but he more than rises to the challenge. This is the magic show to see if you think you’ve seen it all.