The Times Feature: Lifestyle

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I Believe in Magic

Forget top hats, white rabbits and beautiful assistants. Millennial magic has transformed into something different entirely.

Across the country something, well, magic, is happening. Those hackneyed shows which see the lovely assistant cut in half, and flopsy the rabbit dragged from a top hat have been transformed, conjured even, into an innovative new genre. 

The result is that magic shows are now popping in the unlikeliest of venues, showcasing talented newcomers who use tricks and sleights of hand in a completely different way. And from snapping doves in half to levitating Chihuahuas it’s a whole new take on the traditional trickster.

One magician who knows all about giving his all in a performance is up and coming act Pete Firman, who has entertained all over the world doing everything from coughing up live fish to removing his head from his body. He’s at Edinburgh this year before touring the country, and has found a mash-up of comedy and unusual tricks is what keeps the crowd begging for more.

 “I started out doing magic first, but I saw that the comedy circuit was a way to get good” explains Pete. “There is a real difference in pace that you pick up if you’re coming on between comedy acts. People are used to the speed and get bored more easily so you have to go that much faster and work that much harder.”

As far as Pete is concerned it’s a style which has developed with a decided UK angle, and is representative of a nation for whom glittering backdrops and dramatic soundtracks just don’t cut it. “In the US they were into very big and lavish magic acts, of the David Copperfield kind,” he explains. “But that never really caught on over here. We don’t take our magic so seriously, so I think it was only natural that people would start developing acts which combined comedy and magic.”

With such European irreverence then, it’s perhaps no wonder that we’re now seeing touring acts such as Ali Cook snap live doves in half, and Swedish magician Carl-Einar Häckner mess up as many tricks as he completes with impeccable comic timing.

But perhaps the freshest aspect of these new shows is that they are more often found in pubs and clubs rather than cabaret or theatre venues. Their informal appeal is such that they can combine with a medley of other diverse acts and add colour to a casual evening rather than dominate a grand stage. 

Heading the current London billing for showcasing modern-day magic is club venue Madam Jo Jo’s whose monthly magic night has proved so popular they now dedicate two nights a month to celebrating contemporary conjurers in all their various guises.

“It’s not a retro show – all of our acts are completely contemporary styles” explains Catia Ciarico of Madam Jo Jo’s. “I think audiences are seeking alternative entertainment, and there is a new breed of magicians and tricksters coming through have adopted the freedom of performance from the comedians on the comedy circuit and combined it with their own acts.”

In this case the acts include a singing painting, a modern-day Tommy Cooper, and a magic dragon who goes by the name of Piff. 

With fast-paced shows often teaming everything from music to dance with magic acts, it seems today’s performers are realising they must be multi-talented indeed to tempt jaded nine-to-fivers from their home sofas. You certainly can’t fault this latest round of performers when it comes to combining a plethora of impressive skills, so as far as audiences are concerned, it’s chance to sit fearlessly in the front row and enjoy a hybrid of Britain’s best entertainment styles. More importantly, perhaps, the archetypal gentleman magician – him of the kohl-rimmed eyes and self-satisfied delivery – has been replaced with something far more audience-friendly.

“I have found that magicians often get in the way of the magic with their egos or their smugness,” says John van der Put, whose alter-ego, Piff the Magic Dragon performs fortnightly at Madam Jo Jo’s and elsewhere across the country. “When they don’t, then magic can give the jaded and cynical a much needed day off. The big hair and wind machines seem to have died down, thank God, and the smart-alec Mr Quippy magicians of the 80’s and 90’s, have been replaced.”

The replacements haven’t only taken the form of comic talents. Whilst laughter is a proven addition to magic performances the recent revival in burlesque and retro chic has led to a similar revisiting of classic circus-style magic. High-end nightclub Cirque Du Soir, for example, currently entertains VIP guests with everything from sword swallowers to snake charmers. Whilst travelling performers at So & So Circus resurrect vaudeville magic alongside dance and acrobatics. What these acts are proving that the diversity of magic can suit any manner of different incarnations, whether that’s contemporary eclecticism or yesteryear glamour.

So if you’re looking for a different way to spend those sultry summer evenings, keep your eyes open for a night of magical talents. Because whilst there’s plenty of wand-waving involved, these acts are unlikely to be disappearing anytime soon.