Edinburgh Fringe

PBH BEST OF MAGIC SHOW

The PBH’s Best of Magic show, hosted by Chris Cook, featured a different lineup of magicians at each of its three performances.  This review is of the third and final performance, and it was a fitting finale to a Fringe full of incredible magic.

Cook was the perfect choice to host this show.  His love for magic shone through each and every one of the glowing introductions that he gave his fellow magicians.  After watching him juggle getting the crowd excited for each act, helping out in various ways throughout the performances, and performing his own magic tricks when the occasion called for it, it is easy to see why Cook has found success in the hectic realm of performing at private parties.  His unflappable cheeriness at every juncture held the show together.

The show kicked off with Aaron Calvert, a mind reading magician whose main show culminates in hypnosis.  Here, with less time, he focuses on the mind reading, using an audience member to choose numbers on a die for him to figure out.  Calvert’s commanding presence kept the audience mesmerized by his feats.

Next up was the delightfully creepy Ava Beaux.  Her Edgar Allan Poe themed show was reviewed here on one of her first performances, and she has only improved over the course of her time at the Fringe—she certainly had plenty of performances in which to do so, as she proved to be so popular that she had to run her show twice a day to satisfy her fans.  Beaux’s performance persona had consistently been one of her strong points, and even that had developed further; she was fully committed to her darkly comic character.  Beaux is reminiscent (if she would permit a more modern comparison than Poe) of Lemony Snicket, of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” fame.  Her magic tricks were appreciably neat and polished, and she kept up the flow of her act to seamlessly incorporate her illusions.

Following Beaux came a properly comic interval, featuring Tom Crosbie.  Crosbie’s main show included a variety of mathematical and Rubik’s cube based comedy.  Here he focused on the Rubik’s cubes, showing off his quick solves, and tricks like solving the Rubik’s cube while it was in midair.  While Crosbie does not do what one would consider a quintessentially magic centered act, his set was entertaining and provided an interesting change of pace.

David Narayan came next, with his own take on mentalism. He also brought along a taste of the magical history lesson that featured so prominently in his main show, The Psychic Project.  Also similarly to his main show, he kept a twist for the end—which, in this case, featured an unusually exciting wardrobe change.  Narayan’s performances at this Fringe have been heavily informed by history, but it is such characteristic personal flourishes that truly set him apart.

The show wrapped up with a final set by Dave Alnwick, another magician who has proved incredibly popular this year.  His wallet-based trick, featuring multiplying yellow fluffy balls, was a fun and playful way to end the show.  Like in all of Alnwick’s performances, his charismatic personality kept the audience engaged regardless of what he was doing on stage.  As Alnwick is also an amazingly skilled magician, the audience was captivated.

This performance of the Best of Magic show featured a wonderfully skilled lineup and stellar performances from every entertainer.  Each one of these performers are exceptional in their own right, and watching them perform on the same stage was a delight.

ELLIOT BIBBY: MAGIC MOMENTS

Elliot Bibby performs his limited edition “Magic Moments” show just a few times over the course of the Fringe, making it quite the hot commodity of Fringe magical performances. This fun and fast paced show incorporates a range of both mind reading and sleight of hand illusions, making for an overall enjoyable evening.

“Magic Moments” is a particularly flashily theatrical experience, which sets it apart from many of the more subtle Fringe magic shows. It is easy to see that he took inspiration from Las Vegas, where he confides having spent time performing. Bibby’s opening mind reading trick is an amusing start to the show. He add the nice touch of calling upon several audience volunteers to come to the stage as a group relatively early on in the show, making their role in the performance less intimidating to take part in. The success of trick in particular is dependent on the volunteers’ choices, but Bibby is adept at using what is given to him to keep his audience entertained.

Bibby continues through a varied selection of card tricks. He frequently asks audience members to sign a card of their choosing, as insurance that he is not using any multi-deck trickery to make his magic tricks easier—a fairly common practice that Bibby seems especially fond of. The variety and fast pace of Bibby’s card tricks make this an especially lively segment of the show. One segment that perhaps goes on for slightly too long involves a recorded narration of the trick that Bibby attempts. As the entire joke of this section seems to involve poking fun at Australian accents, it feels increasingly slightly uncomfortable as it continues to linger on. However, gentle cultural mockery aside, Bibby’s humor is lighthearted enough to consistently resonate with the audience, and keeps every moment as magical as promised. Bibby ends the show with a final, excitingly performed card trick to a dramatic sound track, a fittingly flamboyant conclusion to his show. 

“Magic Moments” is a worthwhile show to experience, marked by the pleasantly flashy performance style that Bibby brings to the Fringe. His magic tricks are expertly and entertainingly performed, delighting all his audiences. 

INTERVIEW WITH SCOTT SILVEN

We were fortunate enough to steal a moment of Scott Silven’s downtime from his two shows at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe to talk a little about his shows, inspiration, what it’s like to perform, at much more. 

Hannah: First I’d like to speak a little about Wonders at Dusk, what do you want your audience to get out of the show?

Scott: “Wonders at Dusk is a very personal show to me, telling the defining story from my past, something that really affected me and what I do today as an illusionist and a mentalist, so I want audiences to look at their own lives in the same way, at what defines them and how they can challenge themselves to achieve more. Every sort of effect in the show is guided towards that in some way, its not just about connecting with each other, it’s not just about connecting with your surroundings, but connecting with yourself, what you’re capable of. I hope its an inspiring experience for most of the people that come along. I don’t know how you found it yourself?

Yeah I would say inspiring is a good way to describe it

(laughs) Yeah that’s how I try to be with all my work, it’s not just about me standing on stage and presenting skills I’ve learned over years, it’s about using those skills to look at the world in a different way and allow audiences to look at the world in a different way as well. So that’s what I hope…there’s no set agenda when audiences come in, that they must experience a certain thing by the end, but I certainty hope it’s more than just entertainment.

What genre of magician would you say you are?

Well it’s interesting because magic… magic comes in so many different forms. Some [magicians] purely focus on close up, others focus on cards only or mentalism, so if we were defining by genre I’d say mentalism. But I also don’t want to limit that in terms of what I do onstage. I hope I’m a performance artist and a storyteller as well as being a mindreader. My background is theatre and hypnosis, so it’s bringing all those individual elements together and feeding them into an experience that hopefully isn’t just another mentalist or just another magician.

Did you attend university and did you have any other career aspirations other than magic? Or was it always magic?

Amazingly it has always been magic, which my family were thrilled by I’m sure. I started [magic] when I was 4 or 5 and then when I was 12 or 13 I was studying psychology, it was something I was studying in school and was fascinated by what the human mind was capable of. I studied hypnosis when I was 15 and in Milan on a summer holiday so I think my family knew at that point I had a real interest in the human mind. I studied theatre at Edinburgh University and the reason for studying that was purely because- I did acting when I was younger as well, was definitely a showman, and enjoy presenting in front of audiences, and I felt if I had a strong understanding of the craft of theatre that would be able to feed into my work that I do onstage. So I specialized in contemporary performance, which was a great subject to study because you study directing and producing and playwriting as well as acting, so you’re creating your own theatrical toolbox as well as your magical mentalist toolbox. Once I graduated I felt I was in a good place to begin to put the pieces together to shape my own work, so incredibly I have never had a real job, which is exciting and terrifying at the same time, but I would’t have it any other way.

It’s not every day that a person encounters a magician. What’s the first thing people ask you to say or do when they find out about your profession?

Well of course it’s “what am I thinking right now,” and “can you read my mind,” but once you pass that, I think generally it’s a bit of nervousness from people that meet you. It is quite a strange thing to meet someone who claims to have these skills. But I love interacting with people, as a kid my main reason for getting into mentalism was that inquisitiveness- as soon as I meet people I’m always wanting to find out more about them more so than have them find out about me. But also I think it’s really important to be able to switch off when you’re with friends or with family or sharing a coffee, you’re not trying to pry into the deepest reaches of their mind, you’re just trying to be present in the moment.

So what exactly is the appeal of magic to you?

Goodness that’s an excellent question. The appeal has shifted over the years, when I was much younger- my grandfather was the guy that taught me first of all- I started in a very traditional sense with card cheating. So I liked the manipulation, the deception, the artistry behind it at that point in time. The fact that you were working to present a great skill that to 99% of the public was invisible, I found quite exciting. As I got older I studied psychology and hypnosis I realized that magic is so important in our lives- to have a sense of wonder, to have a sense of curiosity is a delightful thing. I think in the world we live in today, to have something mysterious, to have something profound, is the most incredible thing, so that’s what drives my to develop my new shows is that sense of mystery. Yeah, I think that every time I develop something new, every time I see new piece of magic, it ties back to the what we are capable of as humans, what we can aspire to be.

Can you describe the most rewarding aspect of performing for audiences?

I think it’s the transformative nature of it, there’s almost a metamorphosis that takes place. Which for me is incredibly magical, that you see this audience coming in, especially during the festival- it’s late at night, they’re tired, I’m sure they’ve seen ten, fifteen shows throughout that week, and over the one hour I have with them, by the end I hope there really is a transformation where they’re much more open, much more connected. Certainly in the shows that I’ve done it’ll be an idea of connecting with each other, a sort of unconscious connection that runs through the piece, I often notice people exchanging numbers or speaking to each other down at the bar afterwards, so I’d say that’s the rewarding aspect, seeing the transformative nature.

Comedians are famous for referring to certain groups of people as tough crowds. What would you say are the most difficult and the easiest crowds for a magician to work with?

People often say that drunk audiences are the easiest to entertain but they are definitely the most difficult. Wonders at Dusk is on at 10:30pm at the festival and it is billed as a late night show but it not a traditional late night show, it is not a raucous experience, so I would say drunk audiences are definitely the most difficult. Surprisingly I find skeptical audience are the most enjoyable to work with because they come from a place of rational thought and I like to twist that subvert it in a way. I travel all over the world doing shows, and I find American audiences like yourself just to be fantastic, open and receptive. British audiences are a little bit more reticent. But I never look upon the audience as a situation where it is me vs them, its about an experience that were sharing together. I’ve never tried to convince them of something that isn’t real or may be real, it’s just about taking them to a different place and allowing to look at that place and make their own decisions from it.

Can you talk about the importance of showmanship by magicians as opposed to just having technical skills?

I think technical skills are really important and that’s absolutely what everyone should start out with, whatever branch of magic you’re doing whether that’s card magic or mentalism is to take yourself to the level where you have your own toolbox that you can delve into and create your own effects. Of course like any art form you’re going to be inspired by other people but it’s really important to have a strong set of skills. But a wonderful set of skills doesn’t make a great show. To truly connect with an audience, to truly shape something that is an unique experience, you need to craft your own persona or essentially your own character in some way. Showmanship is a difficult word because it can suggest a slickness or a unrealnness to who you are onstage. So I think its important that you display your humanity but that you also offer the audience something they haven’t seen before. The person I like to be onstage is some whose enigmatic, someone who clearly has a great love of mystery. The person I like to be onstage isn’t just someone whose smiling about how wonderful they are, ‘look at these amazing effects I’ve created’, as a lot of performers do seem to do. For me it comes from a place of real joy and innocence of seeing what we are all capable of. Showmanship is important, more important than technically skill, but what’s more important is that you display your humanity.

Do you watch other magicians’ shows? Who inspires you?

I really like Derek DelGuadio, he’s doing a show in Los Angeles called In & Of Itself, It’s directed by Frank Oz and is a magic show but also a piece of performance art, really philosophical and really interesting stuff. And of course in the UK, Derren Brown is incredible, a wonderful mentalist and wonderful performer and really the main inspiration I take from him is that he is a big proponent of using magic as a metaphor, that it’s something so much greater than what you see onstage. Another performer I really took inspiration from is as a child is one that unfortunately passed away a few days ago, Eugene Berger, a wonderful Chicago close up magician who was an incredible storyteller and he was- performing in small  spaces and bringing the audiences close to him. He might only perform three or four effects but they would be the most incredible three or four effects that you would ever see in your life because they shaped a beautiful story and had humanity attached to it as well. So those are the three main magical performers I take inspiration from. And interestingly I think I like them all because with them it’s not just about the magic itself, it’s about pushing magic into different realms.

This is kinda leading off that as well, do you think that every magician lives in the long shadow of the big names like David Blaine and Derren Brown to some extent?

I think the majority of the public look on Blaine and Brown as gods and I think that is absolutely right because they are both incredible performers who have done very unique things within their perspective realms. So Blaine is one of the first to do street magic or the first to present a really minimalistic purist form of magic where it’s just about what you see in front of you, and there’s so many performers who have copied that, well known performers though the UK and the US, but Blaine deserves to stand at the top. And Brown is exactly the same, he is an incredible mentalist. I know he takes inspiration from another performer who is very inspirational who is David Berglas. He was Brown’s equivalent in the 80’s and 90’s in the UK, who presented this really interesting show of exploring the human mind. I think it’s really about carving your own path as a performer, certainly using those people as an inspiration but not worrying about living in the shadow. I think it’s like, once again like any craft, you’re going to take inspiration from artists that inspire you but its just about focusing on your work, and presenting the best work possible. I believe that if you take the time to craft and present good, unique work the opportunities will open themselves to you. And if not, if you just look on Brown and Blaine as great performers and copy all their material, then of course yeah you will live in their shadow.

What is the best piece of advice that you’ve received or influence that you’ve had and who was the source of it?

The first one- there is a very old magic shop in Glasgow called Tam Shepherds and there is an man in Glasgow that runs it is called Roy Walton, who is an incredible card magician. A lot of the card effects you see other magicians do came from Roy originally, so I had the great pleasure at a young age of being able to go to Tam Shepherds. Something Roy always stood by was having originality in your work, and to yes be inspired by other people and to learn other moves but really to have originality. Whilst we do very different styles of magic that idea of originality and taking the time to create has always stayed with me. Then, the second influence I’ve had was very much my grandfather,  he wasn’t a magician himself but he had a great love of mysteries and practical jokes and really shaped my childhood experience with magic. Anytime I’m crafting something new now I’m always thinking of him in some way and what he would think of it or how I would react if he was presenting this to me. So it’s always a nice base to begin from.

And then, what is the best piece of advice you’ve given and who was the recipient?

That’s a difficult question because I think the advice we give to people comes from other people, sort of percolates through from somewhere else, we pass it down and its sort of like a myth in that way, so it has probably been passing on what Roy said about originality, I’ve said that to multiple performers and magicians. And also really about finding joy in what you do. Certainly when you get to a situation like the Edinburgh Festival where you’re performing 50 shows in 24 days or something, or as I do I do a lot of work in America, travelling a lot, doing a lot of shows in big venues, its about finding joy in your work, deciding that’s the reason you do it. And if ever you look on what you’re doing- whatever it is you do in life- and you don’t find joy in it, you should step away and reassess if it exactly what you want to do. So every day when I wake up I’m hugely excited about getting ready for the show or practicing the next effect or perhaps to working towards something else. I’m in an incredibly privileged position where I know of myself, if I won the lottery tomorrow this is still exactly what I would want to do with my life. So that’s the sort of life goal I try to pass onto anyone that I meet.

We’re just about out of time, but before we finish, I just wanted to ask if you have any exciting new projects in the works?

I have a really exciting year ahead which I’m very much looking forward to, this September I start a film which is called Carmilla which is a Gothic novel from the 1870’s written by Joseph Sheridan le Fanu and it was sort of the quintessential vampire novella before Bram Stoker wrote Dracula. There’s a character in it called The Magician who is a very mysterious enigmatic figure, and very excitingly I’ve been cast as the magician and the illusion consultant in this film. We’ve got this amazing cast and it’s this really interesting project. Then after that I’m hopefully going to be going to New York to premier a new show which hopefully I’ll be doing for a few months. Then starting next year I start a six month American tour which will be going across the United States in some really lovely spaces with interesting theaters, and then hopefully I’ll be premiering a brand new show at next years Fringe. So it’s a little bit nonstop for the next few months  but I’m really excited about it all.

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#DAVE: LITERALLY THE BEST MAGICIAN

Some magicians favour subtlety. Dave Alnwick is, unapologetically, not one of them. In one of his shows, he asks his audience to worship him, and in this, his “Literally the Best Magician” show, he seeks to prove that he has earned that title. “Literally the Best Magician” has had an incredible run so far at the Fringe, with daily queues down the street—the Voodoo Rooms even had to set a start time for the queuing, as people were turning up to see Dave well over an hour before the show’s start time.

Alnwick performs a huge variety of tricks to prove his magical superiority, from sleight of hand tricks to mental magic. A mentalist highlight from “Literally the Best Magician” is when he has volunteers draw on white boards and then matches up the drawing to the person who drew it. One of the constants across Alnwick’s performances is his incredible charisma. While many of his tricks are uncommon and intrinsically impressive, he does include a few of the more traditional ones in his bid for ultimate superiority. In his capable hands, these basics are just as engaging. Alnwick also consistently teaches his audience a few of the magical fundamentals, which is an enjoyable way for the audience to feel involved. In this case, he instructs us in some basic sleight of hand. Learning the principles involved only gives the audience a greater appreciation of Alnwick’s skills.

It is worth mentioning that the multi-talented Alnwick has written a choose-your-own adventure book, that also includes instructions to learn magic tricks, which he sells at the end of each of his shows. For Alnwick’s fans, his magic does not have to end when his show does.

Is Alnwick really “Literally the Best Magician”? Spectator chatter certainly swung in his favour by the end of the show. Members of his audience could be overheard comparing him favourably to Derren Brown. Ultimately the question is best answered by every individual for themselves, but it is definitely very enjoyable to watch Alnwick state his case. “Literally the Best Magician” does not try to tell a story, or inspire anything in its audience except for a love of Alnwick. But it is ridiculously fun to watch, and sometimes that’s exactly what you want.

CHRIS COOK: CONCEALED

Chris Cook’s “Concealed” show, as per the title, is deliberately set in a cozy venue off the beaten Fringe path. Combined with the show’s low-key publicity, it sets an intimate tone for this afternoon act. Cook maintains this intentionally cultivated relaxed vibe throughout his series of street magic style tricks.

One of the reasons for this intimate show, Cook explains, is that several of his illusions are too physically small to be appreciated by the full audience in a large scale venue. Coin bending, one of the first tricks that he performs, is an obviously apt example of this. Audience members should perhaps be warned that when they lend Cook a coin they will not receive it back in working condition, but they do get a fun magical souvenir out of it, and Cook is kind enough to not use any volunteered pound coins for this particular effect. 

The small venue and audience size also allow Cook to perform an extended selection of card tricks. Exciting examples of these involve Cook producing a chocolate bar out of a brief flash of fire, and causing a deck of cards to disappear from within an audience member’s clasped hands. Cook ends with classic street magic sleight of hand, involving three cups and balls. Here his personal additions to the usual standards, and his use of the motifs of that trick to recall earlier moments in this show, make for an exciting finale.

“Concealed” is an ideal show to highlight the neatness and elegance of Cook’s magic style, some of which may get lost toward the back of a larger venue. It also allows Cook to engage more with his audience, as he performs magic surrounded by his viewers instead of up above them on a stage.

The choices that Cook makes in his different shows display his versatility as a magician, as they each have very different atmospheres and feature distinct aspects of Cook’s magical skills. For Fringe goers who are only able to see one of Cook’s shows (or perhaps even only one magic show) “Control” is the one to go to. However, for those with an extra hour to spend in Cook’s delightful company, “Concealed” is an engaging and entertaining option.

DAVID NARAYAN: THE PSYCHIC PROJECT

At heart, David Narayan’s “The Psychic Project” is an incredibly fun history lesson.  Narayan illuminates his audience on some of the weirder aspects of Cold War history in this uniquely formatted magic show.

Narayan guides the audience through several basic magic tricks that have their roots in the Cold War era. Magic fans may recognize the series of five cards with different shapes, or have seen some variation of the dangerous bag trick in other shows. Some might have even heard brief explanations of these props from other magicians. For most magicians, however, historical explanation is just used as a few seconds to ground their take on the trick in magical history. For Narayan, on the other hand, the magical past is the central point of his show. The audience gets to hear much more in-depth explanations of the history behind the magic, and watch Narayan re-create the original versions of each trick with audience volunteers.

As this act combines both magic and history, it is best appreciated by those who enjoy both of those things. The historical narrative places the series of tricks in context, and the addition of the illusions in turn brings that historical narrative to life. It understandably appeared reasonably popular with parents and children on the day of the debut performance, as it is both an entertaining and educational show. The magic is interspersed with both Narayan’s historical lectures and a slideshow presentation on the relevant Cold War scientists, complete with audio of pertinent facts and quotes.

In a fitting tribute to history, the final couple of illusions focus on dangerous magic. The scientists who developed the techniques discussed were doing so to ultimately create better methods of hurting their enemies, after all. This does make the show more specifically geared toward those who prefer to watch magic for the thrill rather than for the wonder, but all benefit from the stark look at wartime magic. These final elements do contain an unexpectedly playful moment, however, blessedly lightening the mood. 

Narayan’s “The Psychic Project” is a fascinating combination of magic and history. Fans of both, but especially of magical history, are sure to find this show exceptionally engaging.

AARON CALVERT: AWAKEN

A popular mind reading magician, Aaron Calvert starts his “Awaken” show by correctly deducing what several members of his audience are thinking, as all good mentalists should. However, the main part and highlight of his performance is his hypnosis. This seems like the reason why he draws such a huge crowd at midday, as massive queues flock to his sizable venue, everyone fascinated and eager to be hypnotized.

Calvert begins his hypnosis segment with a bi-tonal sound that, combined with his verbal prompting, is designed to lull the susceptible members of his audience into a state of hypnosis. The benefits of this segment are not entirely lost on those of us who are less susceptible. The tone used is quite relaxing, and Calvert’s voice is pleasant and calming.

The success of this segment is, of course, dependent on Calvert finding enough suitable audience members to hypnotize. Calvert leads them on to the stage and puts them through a series of tasks to demonstrate that they are indeed under his sway. None of these tasks are difficult or embarrassing, and this portion of the act comes off more as a pseudo-scientific experiment to demonstrate Calvert’s abilities rather than a spectacle to entertain the audience at the expense of the participants—a welcome approach.

Calvert also makes an effort to include a flashier bit of hypnosis in his show. He guides one of his hypnotized subjects to pop a balloon through the power of negative thought. Here he again exhibits his care for his audience, making sure to calm his participant from this state of heightened negativity before restoring her mind to her own control.

The finale of the show, once all of the hypnotized individuals have been released from that condition, is designed to showcase Calvert’s ability to predict the group decisions of his entire audience, regardless of each individual’s susceptibility to hypnosis. However, it feels a bit rushed—perhaps, on this day, the other sections of the show took longer than expected—and the audience is left a bit confused as to whether Calvert actually achieved his goal or just shuffled things around a bit to make it look like they were in the right place.

“Awaken” is certainly an enjoyable show for fans of hypnosis. Any imperfections in Calvert’s mentalism are quickly forgotten, for Calvert is a talented performer whose showmanship makes him fun to watch on stage. In any case, an audience coming for hypnotic feats will leave well satisfied with their experience.