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Watching and Listening

I find magic captivating. There is something about the illusion of rising beyond the mundane, the tantalizing imagined possibility of defying physics and chemistry and logic and even death that unfailingly draws me in. And it’s not just me: every seat at ‘Show and Tell’, Barry and Stuart’s show at the Bloomsbury Theatre was sold out on Saturday night. Not that Barry and Stuart are overly earnest with their prestidigitation, instead offering illusions with a darkly comic stage presence.

The double act first drew my eye a few years ago in their ‘Tricks from the Bible’ series, and they’ve recently been on ‘The Magicians’ in snazzy costumes with subtle red detailing. These were also in evidence during last night’s performance. Magic should always be stylish. None of these contemporary magicians in jeans and schlumpy t-shirts for me, please–show me a magician (or a pair of same) in red elbow patches and I will show you one smitten anthropologist.

As its name implies the show was split into two halves, the first being full of illusions and the second revealing the methods employed therein. I am not one of those who believes that displaying the technique behind a trick destroys the showmanship. After all, people will speculate no matter what the performer does, and a few will be right. There is a satisfaction in discovering craft, in bringing the world to rightness by seeing that it was not in fact physics that was defied, but rather the expectations and assumptions of the audience. But equally I think that some of the thrill of mystery should be reserved, the curtain not pulled all the way back.

And indeed the second half culminated in one final trick, a trick that made use of all the power of stage lights and sounds to elicit a sense of tense, terrified anticipation. Now, in situations of managed fright such as horror films and creepy amusement park rides and the like, I happen to know that what invariably makes me jump are the scary sounds. The images, no matter how disturbing, are never nearly as frightening if the sounds of terror can be managed. For this reason when I saw the lights dim to a chilling blue and heard suspenseful music start to build, I readied myself. I squared up, as it were, for impending fright by using the time-honoured horror management technique of sticking my fingers in my ears.

Nevertheless I was unprepared for what came next and nearly ended up in my poor beleaguered neighbour’s lap–though the trick ended with a laugh. (At least in this case I knew my neighbor, unlike the last time I was startled in a theatre.) I laughed all the harder for having been frightened. I think that was the lesson I learned from final illusion: take the mysterious, potentially sinister qualities of life (and death) seriously–but not TOO seriously.

We were left, in the end, with questions. As one of my companions said, “Well, how do we know that any of the things they said in the second half really are how they did things in the first half?” But it doesn’t really matter if they were: either they were indeed telling the truth or we were doubly fooled. Either way we were marvellously entertained.