The leader of the pack

GO TO a David Copperfield-style event and watch his spangly assistant being shut up in a box. Miraculously, after much heavily orchestrated hoo-hah (sorry, "art of illusion"), she appears from somewhere entirely different. Gasp! Applause!! How does he do that? Shall I tell you? Twins. At least, that's the story according to a revealing and delightfully party-pooping TV documentary.

Ricky Jay is in a different league. Quite simply, he's the best cards act since Barbara Stanwyck suckered poor lovestruck Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve. She fleeced him aboard a liner packed to the gunwales with millionaires and, judging by the sharp suits and unseasonable tans worn by Jay's opening night audience, there was a fair number of millionaires ogling his similarly entrancing way with cards, many of whom had coughed up pounds 75 a throw. You could have the best seats at English National Opera for almost half that.

In a recent radio interview, Jay remarked that most magic acts are the refuge of the socially dysfunctional. You know exactly what he means: legions of professional magicians remain trapped beneath the flashy but tacky cloaks of childhood conjuring acts, going about the bewitching business with a mixture of cheesy patter and grandiose silence in an undisguised plea for approbation.

Jay's performance, however, isn't just a series of eye-stretching, reality- defying card tricks, it's also a wittily illustrated history of illusionists, hustlers and fakes that are culled from a life devoted to distilling his craft.

On a Victorian parlour set, looking like a benign version of TV's Quincy plus Stephen Sondheim's beard, he does things you can't believe are happening, often under the gaze of audience members who are invited up to watch him in close-up. The effect is simply dazzling, eliciting coos of astonishment, gasps of surprise and bursts of delighted applause at every turn.

The most intriguing aspect is the way in which he appears to tell you how it's done while actually revealing nothing but his mastery. There is clearly nothing this man cannot do with his eponymous "52 assistants" from dealing from, yes, the centre of the pack, invisibly moving aces from hand to hand, to shuffling and dealing five poker hands to illustrate how to stack every player so that the dealer wins, as it were, in spades.

In the slightly less intriguing second half, his tone switches from between the avuncular and the cunning to more of the showman as he sends cards skimming across the theatre to lodge themselves into the tough hide of a watermelon, or to fly through the air and return like a boomerang.

How does he do it? Prodigious memory? Sleight of hand? Mirrors? Who cares? We cannot see behind the vaguely suspicious vertical panel of his table, but that simply doesn't account for how an unfakeable card disappears, only to reappear in a separate, seemingly sealed deck. Nor does it explain the blissful sequence where he stands directly in front of you and mysteriously finds 10 different cards previously chosen by individuals in 10 beguilingly different ways, climaxing in scattering the pack to the four winds to reveal himself holding the last two selected. To coin a phrase, it's "just magic".

David Benedict

To 17 July, 0171-928 7616