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
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power