5 Stars

DAVE ALNWICK: ACTUAL MAGIC

☆☆☆☆

Dave Alnwick uses a quote from one of this publication’s past reviews on his flyers this year, that lets prospective audiences know that Alnwick’s shows are notoriously busy and that they will have to arrive early to get a seat.  This reviewer initially failed to heed her own warning when trying to review Actual Magic.  Luckily it is worth the wait (and the return trip to the Voodoo Rooms).

The stand out feature of Actual Magic is how smoothly the threads of its story are woven into the performance as a whole.  Alnwick expresses fear that if he allows himself to put too much of his personal life into his performance it will just come across as emotionally manipulative.  Actual Magic drops hints and teasers throughout the show, so by the time he reaches the emotional heart of the story it comes across as genuine.  It is more than the one moment, in hindsight the entire show is composed as a memorial—and in a way that is uplifting and inspirational rather than incapacitated by grief.

The magic is incredible as well.  Alnwick emphasizes his mentalist tricks in this show without limiting himself to them.  One of his sleight of hand tricks excitingly makes use of his flyers rather than normal props like coins or cards.  All are perfectly performed to Alnwick’s usual high standards.  While Alnwick spends more time telling a story at this show than usual, the magic does not feel forced, but is an essential element of the narrative.

Alnwick mentions that he has been coming to the Fringe for a decade.  Those who have seen his comedy magic shows, in past years or even earlier in the day at this year’s Fringe, will see Actual Magic as even more exceptional.  Alnwick may come across as insecure in other shows.  Past themes of trying to convince everyone to join a cult to worship him, or prove that he is literally the best magician, build an inherently defensive relationship with the audience even by magic show standards.  It is an act that clearly works for him, as he is consistently incredibly popular.  Actual Magic, on the other hand, feels built on trust in his abilities as a magician and performer to connect with his audience, which is so wholesomely lovely to see.  Audiences seeing Alnwick for the first time at Actual Magic may not read this over-analysis in to it.  They will just have to settle for a perfectly constructed and flawlessly performed magic show.

 

More information on Dave Alnwick and his performance dates can be found here.

CHRIS COOK: CONSEQUENCES

Chris Cook regularly tests the boundaries of what can be defined as a magic show, and Consequences, his new and most meta show, is no exception.  It is less of a “magic” show and more of an exploration of how magic shows, or at least Cook’s shows specifically, are made.  There might be the initial fear that, due to this subject matter, Consequences risks becoming self-absorbed and bogged down in the individual problems of this one performer.  Fortunately the other regular feature of Cook’s shows is his inspirational take on audience participation, at which he is almost uniquely effective—and in this Consequences is again no exception.

Those who have seen Cook previously might recognize many of the tricks used in Consequences as his dependable standbys.  This makes sense in the context of the show.  In a scene where he pretends to be performing at a children’s birthday party it makes sense to see him perform a card trick with an especially sweet ending.  In a show with an overarching theme of struggling to come up with new ideas this recycling of tricks is simultaneously cleverly immersive and cheekily self-referential.

Cook’s magical abilities are superb.  Perhaps in part because Consequences uses so many recycled tricks, Cook performs each one essentially flawlessly.  This is particularly important in a show such as Consequences, as a less skilled magician complaining about the trials of successful show-writing might come across as bitter and resentful.  Cook’s undeniable expertise bolsters Consequences’ implicit claims to genuine self reflection.

Many magic shows end with the magician revealing that they had predicted the audience’s behavior from the very beginning, turning the entire show into one big mentalist trick.  The ending of Consequences is almost exactly the opposite.  Cook attributes the success of his final magic trick to the power of a chosen audience member’s aspirations rather than his own skill, and his final “reveal” is nonsensically circular in a way that somehow still supports Cook’s ultimately inspirational message.

Consequences is an interestingly constructed and heartwarming magic show with a lot of character.  Cook’s onstage persona might be seen to struggle with creating an inventive new show, but the effectiveness of Consequences is evidence in support of Cook’s imaginative talents.

 

More information on Chris Cook and his performance dates can be found here.

AARON CROW: FEARLESS

In Fearless, Aaron Crow performs an entire hour of dangerous magic, with few breaks for less scary effects.  It is in part a master class on the types of dangerous magic tricks that the audience might recognize as having been performed by other magicians, here done with Crow’s exemplary skill and distinctive style.

Through all of the danger, Crow is courteous to his audience participants.  They might briefly worry that they could cut themselves on the glass that he scatters on stage, the sword that he wields, or his perfectly chiseled cheekbones, but the vast majority are asked to take more supportive roles as Crow manipulates his dangerous props.  The few who are given more active roles look comforted by Crow’s quiet encouragement.

Crow fully commits to the aesthetic that he has chosen with his costume changes, set design, and clever use of lighting.  He has even perfected a characteristic style of movement to match and accentuate this.  Crow’s performance is almost dance-like as well as being magical.

Where such a show might falter would be in taking itself too seriously, leaving the contrived danger open to ridicule.  Luckily Crow embraces the inherent ridiculousness of his genre.  He performs silently to music, but his sly sense of humor shines through in his movements, especially in his direct interactions with his audience members.  This maintains audience engagement without relying on simply escalating the danger of the performance.  Crow certainly does this as well, but the multidimensional nature of his performance allows the danger escalation to come across as a choice rather than a transparent attempt to keep the audience’s attention.

Fearless is fantastic, but it is a very stylized take on a specific genre, which may limit its appeal.  That being said, even those who are not a fan of dangerous magic will see the delight in Crow’s wit and the flow of his movement, and could not fail to be touched by his charming finale.

 

More information on Aaron Crow and his performance dates can be found here.

CHRIS COOK: ENTROPY

☆☆

Chris Cook performs Entropy differently every evening, varying the show apparently largely based on whim.  This, he explains, is one of the reasons why he has chosen to call it Entropy—the universe’s tendency toward chaos, a fittingly playful anti-theme for this show.

Many of the tricks performed on the occasion of this review showcase Cook’s creative approach of magic.  He might start a routine card trick, but he doesn’t stop after finding his participant’s card, instead building a new trick from the remnants that would more commonly be discarded.  Magic fans will almost certainly see something new and different the first time that they watch Cook perform.  In Entropy, there is a decent chance that even those who have seen him frequently will get to do so as well.

Cook was unlucky in having an especially disruptive audience member, but he did not let her derail his show, instead allowing her to join him onstage and become a part of it.  When she takes up more of his time than planned, Cook ramps up his energy levels to deliver a speedily satisfying conclusion to the show at the last minute.  Cook sets a casual tone for this performance and looks like he is enjoying his time on stage, but when circumstances are less than perfect the audience gains a better appreciation for how hard he is working to curate this experience for them.

The degree of spontaneity in Cook’s performance of Entropy is evidence of his incredible skill as both a magician and a performer.  Cook has earned the calculated laziness of not carefully planning the flow of his show. He has perfected his individual routines and transition patter to the point that he can confidently use them to build the show that he wants to perform on the day.  Watching a performer with that much trust in his own abilities, clearly justified by his performance, is always going to be a pleasure.

Cook is unflappably charming and his magic technique is flawless.  The specifics of Entropy might change from one day to the next, and this is a point in its favor.  After seeing it once, the audience will want to return as soon as they can to find out what else Cook is capable of.

 

More information on Chris Cook and his performance dates can be found here.

 

BILLY REID: WATCH CLOSELY

☆☆

Good art thrives when it is communicating, is connecting. Good art thrives when it surpasses the individual and is made accessible to the collective. Although it may take some convincing to even get everyone to agree that magic is art, and can be good art, it cannot be debatable that Billy Reid’s show Watch Closely most certainly is. But what’s more, Watch Closely exceeds good art to become great, and exceeds thriving to absolutely bring magic to life in the eyes and, in some cases, hands, of those that get to witness it.

The title Watch Closely sounds at first like the issuing of a challenge. Watch closely, because the magician is here to trick you- will you be able to catch him? But that is not actually anything close to the sentiment of Reid’s show.  Reid does not present magic as a challenge to be beat. His performance is uncommonly personal, with almost all effects tying into the narrative Reid weaves about his family, his childhood, memories about both his upbringing and more recent experiences that stayed close to his heart.

Although the story that ties Reid’s magic together is so personal to him, that does not make it inaccessible to others. In fact, quite the opposite. Reid is able to cast a spell over his audience that brings them with him on every trick, every tale, every tone shift. At the performance reviewed, the room was full and the audience amiable and excited. Reid engaged well with this energy, bantering with his crowd and taking advantage of the boisterousness for the lighthearted effects. But when moments required a little more calm, a little more focus, Reid was even still able to lead all his spectators into the appropriate mentality, a much more impressive feat.

All his authentic charisma would be for naught without genuine talent, which luckily Reid has in spades (a heinous pun for which we do not apologise.) Reid’s takes on card tricks, his rendition of the oldest magic trick in the world, and really all tricks that are performed in Watch Closely are performed with, if not total technical perfection, so close as to be nearly indistinguishable from it. And Reid’s effects are performed with similarly spectacular beauty. Reid mentions a love for visual art in this show, and proves this by integrating art thematically into the tricks performed. Not only does he do an homage to a favourite artist, but one of his closing pieces features his own foray into drawing. The pictures created aren’t bad themselves, but what he does with them through magic is absolutely incredible.

Watch closely, Reid insists. Not just for this show, this hour, but through your own life. Not to catch a trick, but to catch a moment. To keep each memory as alive as the magic he creates.

 

More information on Billy Reid and his performance dates can be found here.

BILLY REID: WATCH CLOSELY

☆☆

It takes a good magician to entice a busy Edinburgher to Glasgow on a Wednesday evening. Luckily, Billy Reid is worth the trip.  Reid makes his audience for Watch Closely feel welcome as soon as they step through the door, taking the time to learn as many people’s names as possible.  This allows him to address many of his participants by name when inviting them to take part in his show, giving the entire performance a pleasantly intimate and relaxed atmosphere.

The majority of Watch Closely is close-up card tricks, which Reid performs with neatness and style.  Reid lists the awards that he has received for his magic at the beginning of his performance, but he does not really need to, as his evident skill speaks for itself.  Reid’s card tricks set the standard for precisely performed magic, and his storytelling and comedy are executed with the same dexterity, ensuring that the energy of his performance remains constant as he transitions between tricks.  Watch Closely is narratively and thematically cohesive, as Reid uses stories from his life to gradually guide the audience toward the inspiring message with which he ends the show.

If you are a magic fan, you’ve probably seen some of the same tricks repeated often, especially if you see the same magician more than once. But Reid’s tricks are so visually beautiful that watching them again is a joy more similar to that of revisiting a piece of art at a museum.  The use of color in a trick themed on childhood memories of outdoor adventures sets this tone, and it is epitomized in Reid’s incredible illustrated deck that is always a highlight.

Every so often the right performer at the right time is more than entertainment, but also an inspiration to their audience to view the world differently, or the medium to help them process emotions that they might not have even known needed processing.  Reid conveys all of this intensity with his trademark artistry, in what is still unmistakably and unapologetically a magic trick.  The title of his show initially sounds like standard magician bravado, challenging his audience to catch his sleight of hand.  By the end of the evening the double meaning becomes clear, that Reid uses his magical skills to encourage his audience to pay closer attention to their own lives.

 

More information on Billy Reid and his performance dates can be found here.

THE VANISHING MAN & THE EXTINCTION EVENT

“A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.” So say Jean Robert- Houdin, the 19th century French conjurer considered the father of modern magic.  And so be David Aula and Simon Evans. Their two, interconnected shows, The Vanishing Man and The Extinction Event, are billed as theatre but are filled to the brim with magic, and it’s impossible to tell what’s the most amazing part. It’s very, very hard to weave magic tricks into a compelling, coherent story, or at least is must be because it’s very, very rare to see it done well. This is one of those rare times. Both The Vanishing Man and The Extinction Event would be excellent examples of great theatre even without the magic, even on just the strength of their stories, but the physical element of illusions puts them onto a whole new level.

These shows, which are better reviewed together rather than apart, are also better viewed together rather than apart. Although they can technically both stand alone, the emotional impact of the second one, the Extinction Event, is much stronger for seeing the former. The pertinent background is shared at the beginning just in case you haven’t seen them both, but that information packs so much more of a punch when learned over the course of a show than in a quick sentence of catch up. In The Vanishing Man, a magician and his friend take us through the mysterious case of the fictional Edwardian magician Hugo Cedar, and his greatest and most terrible trick- vanishing without a trace (or much of a trace) off London Bridge. This long dead magician and his story have an immense effect on the two magicians, and like any magic show, not all is as it seems. In The Extinction Event, these same men dip into the impact of machines on our lives, the implications of them for magic, and the possibilities of hypnosis. All done with such astoundingly intelligent storytelling and incredible heart, it may actually make you cry.

Almost as notable as the stories themselves is the unique way Aula and Evans have of engaging their audience in interacting with the shows. The instructions are almost impossibly efficient and effective, and make every single member of the audience invested in the performance and leave no one feeling embarrassed or really singled out.  Not counting the audience, these are two man shows, and Aula and Evans also excel in their chemistry with each other. Their pacing is flawless, their relationships relatable, and their performances a perfect match.

The Vanishing Man and The Extinction Event are the cleverest shows at the Edinburgh Fringe twice over, and are as beautiful and entertaining as they are smart. To put it in no uncertain terms, they are absolutely unmissable.

 

The Vanishing Man can be found at Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33) during the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe at 14:10 from August 16-27

The Extinction Event can be found at the same place and dates at 15:40

More information on The Vanishing Man and The Extinction Event and their performance dates can be found here