Striding out on stage to open his show, Derren Brown has an expectant beam on his face. The audience too has high expectations, chief among them that Brown's stride will never be broken, that he will never be wrong-footed.
Knowing how the story ends doesn't affect the audience's ability to welcome, with rapturous applause, the outcome of an illusion. These range from the ability to see through tin foil to unearthing someone's intimate childhood memories. However, being presented with such a constant stream of "Derren-do" is unnerving and can even become tiring as a kind of spectacle-based trance sets in. Though it's nothing, of course, compared with the audience members in whom he manages to induce a state of somnambulism.
Anyone who has seen Brown live before will know that his routines are like gags, with long set-ups and killer punch lines. The closing number of this show, that calls back to an earlier routine, is a great example of a set-up pushed to breaking point, where a group of men, who looklike they are about to audition unsuccessfully for The Full Monty, amble around making apparently random choices to stand in certain positions in front of markers. The method in the madness turns out to be worth the wait and brings the audience, that tonight includes Neve Campbell, Alan Carr, Paul Daniels, Mark Gatiss and Reece Shearsmith, to its feet. Brown has a habit of doing this, sometimes simply as a result of goodwill, sometimes, as with the aforementioned somnambulists, by design.
Businesslike throughout, Brown always tries hard to keep the tempo up. Sometimes that's done with cheeky asides. He pontificates on the likelihood that the 1960s Russian psychic Nina Kulagina used magnets in her bra to move objects. The observation leads to the remark, "you can see that her nipples repel each other. And me too, as it turns out." But Brown is far from a natural deliverer of wit and some of his asides directed at one volunteer are forced and gratuitous.
That he can be taut at times is largely forgivable given how much material there is to get through. Brown almost winces if potential audience volunteers are half-hearted or making less effort than they should to be audible. It's imperative that we are on his wavelength throughout, so while he only occasionally has his patience stretched, we have to indulge him as he goes into an apocryphal tale of his grandfather and a secret box he once kept. Tonight, that box becomes relevant to one of his audience. The elaborate reveal means that the ball of string used in the trick is not the only thing that is unravelling.
While there are lulls, for the most part the pace and the apparent impossibility of the tricks means that questioning can only come after. Other than questions of method, the big conundrum is where does a Derren Brown show leave an audience?
On the one hand, we have been subjected to "miracles", and on the other we know that Brown is now a champion of rational thought, though he still pays homage to the stylistic fripperies of mediums. So, there's wonder but no magic. Moreover, there's no real sense of risk after a while. Therein lies a kind emptiness. Tonight is all about craft and the elevation of that craft to an art form, striking a balance between the necessary choreography of method for the final fanfare of effect. Brown has done this better in previous outings. While one can dispute how this show measures up, he's still the only game in town and the man who has put mentalism on the map for the 21st century.
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