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BWW Reviews: THE ILLUSIONISTS 1903 Transports the Audience to the Glory Days of Magic

Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Thursday 15th January 2015

During the Victorian era, magic shows moved from the streets and fairgrounds to the drawing rooms of the wealthy and into theatres. The great names, such as Harry Keller, John Nevil Maskelyne, Jean Eugene Robert Houdin, and Professor John Henry Pepper, whose Pepper's Ghost illusion, using the new science of electric light, brought him fame, and was copied and modified by many others. In 1905, the now famous Magic Circle was formed in London, with David Devant as its first president. Then, of course, there was the great escapologist, Harry Houdini. This was the heyday of stage magicians, when conjurors, mentalists, escapologists, and prestidigitators were the superstars.

The Illusionists 1903 takes us back to the end of the Victorian era, when magic was at its peak in popularity, and it would still be nearly a decade before the sawing the woman in half routine was invented. So many of the illusions we see today are often based on and developed from the groundwork of these pioneers and innovators. This is where the saying "it's all smoke and mirrors" began, because smoke and mirrors were used extensively in creating illusions. Some, such as the famous sawing the lady in half routine, had not yet been invented. They were exciting times and audiences were thrilled and baffled by these seemingly impossible illusions, being presented for the first time.

The Immortal, Rick Thomas, acts as a master of ceremonies and presents some clever work producing doves. His big show closing illusion, though, is a variation of levitating his assistant and making her disappear. You will be completely unprepared for how he ends this illusion, with a very innovative twist of his own.

The Eccentric, Charlie Frye, adds an element of humour to his performances. the linking rings is a very-known illusions, so one looks for the skill with which it is performed, and how the performer puts their own stamp on it. Frye is lightning fast but also passes the rings to and fro over his body, stepping in, staggering slightly all the time as though having trouble balancing, and ending a wobble and half-fall with the ring coming off over his head and suddenly forming part of another elaborate pattern, connected to the others. His string of disappearing screwed up tissues, the balls increasing in size all the time, is carried out incredibly close to a volunteer, who wonders why the audience is in hysterics.

The Daredevil, Jonathan Goodwin, attempts to escape from a straightjacket whilst hanging upside down, with a life threatening punishment if he takes too long. There is only one way to find out if he can beat the fuse, and that is to see the show. He also has a stunning new take on the fakir's bed of nails. Don't let him near a sharp knife, either. It should be stressed that his segments are not tricks or illusions, they are real and do involve skill, danger, and pain.

The Showman, Mark Kalin, who works extensively around the world with his partner, Jinger Leigh, gives his take on the catching a bullet in his teeth illusion, the missile fired from her Winchester rifle, through a transparent plate halfway across the stage to prove the bullet was actually fired from the rifle, and ending clamped between his teeth. Both parts of the bullet were each signed by audience members beforehand, and checked after to show that the two parts were once the whole thing. Watch closely, and decide whether you would be game to stand where he did.

The Conjuress, Jinger Leigh, also performs solo, and takes the floating ball illusion a step further having it floating freely in the air all around her, at her beck and call. It is all style and elegance, the epitome of the sophisticated performance that was expected over a century ago. She and Kalin also performed a double cutting the person in half, a man in one box, and a woman in the other. The end of this act will leave you blinking and wondering.

The Clairvoyants, Thommy Ten, and the blindfolded Amèlie van Tass, have a remarkable act that left the audience dumbfounded. Originally, these acts relied on the person roaming the audience giving word clues to the "clairvoyant" on stage. Sometime, these acts were caught out, unless performed by very talented people. When van Tass insists that Ten is talking too much, and the next few items held up in silence are described in detail, with nothing more than acknowledgement from their owners that she is correct, the verbal clues system is obviously not in play. A few other elements of the illusionists' arts, however, are being used.

The Maestro, Armando Lucero, really is a complete master of sleight of hand. Even under the scrutiny of a video camera projecting a close up image onto a large screen, coins and cards still seemed to be transporting themselves from one place to another. This is the area of the illusionists' art that has always appealed to me the most and, in the face of such skill, impressed me the most. It has also frustrated me the most, as my small hands make it so much more difficult to master. Many illusions, such as the dove pan, rely on the mechanical traits of the equipment although, even though the workings of the illusion can be learned in a few minutes, the presentation takes time and talent. Sleights take a lot of time and practice, years of constant work, and Lucero has clearly put in that effort.

There is so much more in the two hours than this, and even the illusions mentioned need to see seen to be fully understood and appreciated. You really must see the period style costumes, and decorated equipment, and the music, provided by both a small band on stage and recorded music, adds so very much to the atmosphere, tension, and excitement. It is, naturally, a family, show with a recommended minimum age of 8 years. opening night was packed, so it would be wise to book quickly.

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From This Author Barry Lenny