From shrinking cards to mind reading: the art of live magic shows

Written by
Anne Brassier
Published on
August 29, 2023

Every year, Abracademy people attend some live events related to the world of magic and magical experiences. Alex usually goes to the Blackpool Magic Convention, Rubens recently went to Poland to The College of Extraordinary Experiences and I attended magic shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Here's my thoughts on those:

The first show I saw was Ben Hart's Jadoo, which completely charmed my 12 yo companion and I. And that's saying something as 12 year olds are harsh critics.

Ben Hart

Ben introduced himself to the audience as our guide – guiding us back towards our childlike amazement, free of cynicism and scepticism. You know it's all tricks. I know it’s all tricks. The 12 year old knows it’s all tricks. But Ben’s preface reminded me, for an hour at least, to welcome the simple pleasure of stepping into a make–believe world, suspending my empirical beliefs, and experiencing his illusions show with gusto.

So welcome it we did. 

Ben storytells with humour and intrigue, juggling the two beautifully, while seamlessly weaving in the magic. The backbone of his narrative is about his Indian heritage and the mysticism of the country, especially the kind of magic he discovered there, performed by Jadoo wallahs and fakirs. Jadoo wallahs are street magicians, who’s ‘stage’ is a circle in the dust. Within this magic circle, they tell their stories and perform their illusions, and similarly, Ben created his own sandy magic circle for the show. His magic ranged from card magic (he started with a normal deck and finished with a teeny tiny deck!) to predictions; he deployed whichever illusion best fitted his story and everything flowed.

I particularly liked the set design. The fact that the venue was a sort of burlesque tent helped, but his stage was illuminated by a simple set of lights that dropped down or disappeared, changing colour to create ambiance quickly, and effectively. Thanks to his to slick sleight of hand and charming stories, he didn’t need anything more elaborate as a backdrop. The 12 year old and I loved it… it was impressive without being over the top; we didn’t feel overwhelmed by his magic or, worse, out the other side of amazement to indifference.

The highlight for the 12yo was when Ben put a long thin needle through his forearm 😵... He asked if anyone wanted to see it up close and her hand shot up faster than it probably ever does in the classroom!! When he came by our seats, she peered and was delighted to announce “there’s real blood”. Kids eh.

Next was Colin Cloud and his show, After Dark

Colin Cloud

After Dark is a Las Vegas spectacle transported to the Edinburgh Festival. Accomplished though Cloud is, overall I was left nonplussed and indifferent to his non–stop mind reading act. At the start of the show, we were given a piece of paper to fold - the 'predictor' thing that was popular at secondary school. When it came time to use it, I lost track of the instructions so that particular trick bypassed me.

The foldy paper thing

Also at the start, a sealed envelope was delivered by a woman Cloud had met via Zoom and predictably, at the end of the show, he revealed that the envelope contained some of the ‘random’ facts that had emerged during the show. In between these two moments there was little breathing space - one after the other he delivered mind reading feat after mind reading feat. Add some overly dramatic music and a lot of instructions to the audience members who volunteered to participate – stand here, go there, two steps to the right, hold this, look there, talk here, louder - and any charm or feeling of being wow’d was obliterated. I walked away thinking that the ‘volunteers’ were probably collaborators, plants in the crowd. As someone who works with magicians and understands a little about such magic, none of Cloud’s act was fathomable. But instead of being impressed, I felt duped.

Throughout his show, Cloud talks about his mental health. While I applaud this because the more people like him can talk about their mental health struggles, the more normalised it becomes in our world. However, it felt commodified... For me, a show like this wasn’t the right place for this. Nonetheless, it was genuinely brave of him to lay himself bare in that way.

Lastly, I saw Suhani Shah – another mentalist and a superstar in her native India.

Suhani Shah

Like Colin Cloud, Shah bamboozles the audience with her mind reading skills, but her humour and warmth save the whole show from being a production line of tricks. 

I liked that Shah talked about her skills in reading human behaviour thereby acknowledging the role of psychology in this kind of magic. Psychology is what makes magic a science, not just an art. Her ability moved the art of mind reading away from feeling like cheap end–of–pier entertainment to an impressive skill that the likes of Derren Brown have also harnessed and mastered.

Shah in action with an audience volunteer

Shah is very likeable and light–hearted. Her patter feels off–the–cuff and ad–libbed, even though it’s probably very rehearsed, and worked through. She laughs with the audience, not at us. I didn't leave feeling hoodwinked. 

My takeaway?

No matter how much magic and illusion I’ve seen – and learned – I can still be wow’d... 😍 The kid in me still exists and my need for hardcore facts can be parked. Phew!

Number magic: audience members shout out numbers, we add them up on our phone calculators and then lo! - the numbers appear in a sealed envelope.

Each year different members of the team attend magic-related events (like Blackpool and the Edinburgh Festival), including myself as a non-magician this year, to get a different perspective. So, please note that the opinions on these shows are entirely my own, not Abracademy's.

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