Edinburgh Festival: Piff the Magic Dragon and the lunatic Fringe

Unlikely magician Piff the Magic Dragon is set to fire up this year's Edinburgh Festival. Brian Logan meets him and his lovely chihuahua assistant

Every August in Edinburgh, the phrase "spirit of the Fringe" is bandied about, but seldom defined. Now help is at hand: that spirit – the peculiar quality that makes this carnival of multifarious art and entertainment so unique – has been distilled into one act. It's a man dressed as a dragon, performing magic tricks in partnership with a poker-faced chihuahua called Mr Piffles. Piff the Magic Dragon is simultaneously the gimmicky novelty act that makes Fringe-sceptics groan, and the heart-warming story of a depressed conjuror seeking redemption disguised as a big lizard and – hey presto! – finding a huge global audience.

Now 33, John Van der Put spent the first 10 years of his career performing close-up magic at functions. "I was going into restaurants and interrupting people for a living," he says. He's talking to me at a members' club in central London, with his chihuahua on his lap. Van der Put hated the intrusiveness, and the smugness, of his earlier brand of after-dinner magic. Now he sells-out his own solo shows, at Edinburgh and beyond. He recently toured with the band Mumford and Sons, performing to more than 200,000 people in the process. He staged a nine-night solo season at Sydney Opera House; his appearance on Penn & Teller's ITV show Fool Us has been viewed more than nine million times on YouTube; and he's the Magic Circle's 2013 Stage Magician of the Year.

Oh, and in case that doesn't add up to a cool enough life, he's creating the illusions for the achingly hip theatre company Punchdrunk's new show The Drowned Man. He last worked with Punchdrunk a decade ago, and when he saw the company's director Felix Barrett again, "Felix was just like, 'Who would have thought? Who would ever have imagined?'"

Nobody saw Piff the Magic Dragon's success coming – least of all the his creator. The alter ego emerged when Van der Put went to a fancy- dress party in a costume donated by his sister, only to find that no one else had bothered to dress up. "I spent the whole night getting more and more grumpy. And then my friend said, "you should do this in your act'." Six months later, he did, and "immediately I was like, 'This is what I should do now'."

Even as a close-up magician in restaurants, Van der Put had been successful: he created the culinary magic effects at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck restaurant, for example ("There was one where [the waiters] snapped their fingers and a sorbet dish would burst into flames"). But it's only in character, as "Jack Dee in a dragon suit", that his career took off.

"I'd never been able to find an angle before," he says, "to get away from, 'I'm cleverer than you ... taa-daa', all the stuff that made me uncomfortable about magicians," he says. "I see all these magicians who are like, "I am the messiah, these are miracles", and I just thought it'd be funny if you did that in a dragon outfit." And so it proved – although the clincher was recruiting a miniature mutt as his sidekick. "I just thought: there's something missing," says Van der Put.

Then, at his first Edinburgh show in 2009, "the girl who ran the venue had a chihuahua. So my PR said: 'why don't you put that in the show?'"

Now, Van der Put's act revolves tightly around Mr Piffles. The dog apparently gets straitjacketed, fired out of a cannon, and gets his paw broken. That last illusion has raised the odd complaint, not least when Van der Put supported Mumford and Sons at Newcastle Arena. Piff was appearing on a second stage, out of sight of most of the audience, who didn't notice him until his show was well under way. By the time they twigged, "all they saw," says Van der Put with a wince, "is a guy in a dragon suit breaking a tiny dog's paw. Right into the microphone, in an arena. And the whole place was like, 'Boo! Fuck you!'"

Audiences usually respond more enthusiastically – not least on the Edinburgh Fringe, where it all began for Piff, and which Van der Put cites as "my favourite thing".

"I didn't start with any money or management behind me," he explains. "I went up there, it was open-access, I did my first Piff act, and it took off from there. It's amazing that there's a place where you can do that. And where you can do 100 gigs a month. I love working, so to be able to do that – I'm just really, really grateful that the Edinburgh Fringe exists."

'The Piff the Magic Dragon Show' is at Pleasance King Dome (pleasance.co.uk) Thurs to 25 Aug, then Soho Theatre, London W1 (sohotheatre .com) 15 to 27 Oct.


Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform