Comedy: Pick a card, any card

Comedy has moved on from the obvious. No more raps on domestic crises and workplace angst. Now, magic is bringing a taste of mystery to audiences

I will resist the very strong temptation to say magic is the new rock'n'roll, but there's no doubt it's the Next Big Thing on the circuit. Martin MacMillan has certainly noticed a boom in his shop, International Magic, in Clerkenwell Road. "We get quite a few people from the City interested in buying tricks to show to clients," he reveals. "It's a good ice-breaker."

MacMillan is also organising a huge gala at the Haymarket, Theatre Royal tomorrow night, which is rounding off a weekend magic convention attended by 700 prestidigitators. Topping the bill is Silvan, a man with his own TV show in Italy who specialises in making cards vanish. Also appearing are Junge Junge, who recently won the World Magic Championships in Dresden performing a magical mime set around a shoeshine stall, and Richard McDougall, a comic magician who does a bit of goose ventriloquism. People are advised to arrive early because performers will be practising close-up magic in the foyer and bars an hour before the show starts.

According to MacMillan, magic is becoming so popular because "it's a mystery and a fantasy. Some things happen that can't possibly happen. The workings are often simple, but our brains don't work that way so we're baffled. It's quite nice to relax and be baffled."

Some critics object to the inherent deceptions involved in magic, however. "You are deceiving people," MacMillan concedes. "But magicians use that for entertaining rather than challenging people."

There is also a lingering whiff of end-of-the-pier naffery about magic. "There are tacky things in all forms of entertainment," MacMillan argues. "Just because some people have seen bad magicians, they mustn't tar us all with the same brush."

MacMillan remains starry-eyed about the business. He was born into it and took over the shop from his father. So just what is it that makes people want to become magicians? "A lot of magicians started in childhood and never grew up," he laughs.

The World Class Magic gala is at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket SW1 (0171- 930 8800) tomorrow night

EXTRA

There should be quite a wild night down at the Hackney Empire 96th-birthday celebration next Tuesday. Heading an impressive bill is Al Murray's inspired creation, the pub landlord. He will be supported by, among others, the likeable Boothby Graffoe, the always accomplished Mark Steel, and the sharp Junior Simpson. A special guest appearance by Griff Rhys Jones is also promised. All proceeds will go to the Empire's Lottery "Get the Ball Rolling" Fund. Tickets are available on 0181-985 2424.

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