For those of you who've never heard of Derren Brown (no relation!), he's a British entertainer who soared to celebrity mostly through his appearances on the UK's Channel 4 TV. Or at least that's where I first saw him and became enthralled with his illusions, psychological tricks and mind games.
Brown's act is difficult to categorise succinctly. It would be easy to label him as a 'magician' and he is. But he's also rather more than that because his stunts, illusions or whatever you prefer to call them also employ psychology (or seem to) and that presents an intriguing and compelling dimension to his act.
This isn't really a one-man show. It's actually one man assisted by a cast of around a 1,000 because the audience are as much a part of Derren Brown's act as any of his props or the man himself. Audience participation is a key requirement, and participants are selected at random by means of frisbees that Brown flings out with horrific speed from the stage. Members selected in this way provide almost as much mirth as the man himself. Nervous and put on the spot, Joe Public is liable to make hilarious statements, or ignore detailed and simple instructions alike. But that's all part of the show, and Brown copes amiably with almost every eventuality, handling the audience with respectful dignity – well, most of the time!
There was a time when magicians were an essential ingredient in variety shows both on TV and in live theatre, but then fashions changed and the role of the traditional kind of magician waned. Brown, however, has been hugely successful in reversing the trend and appealing to a totally new crowd. Many in the audience seemed to be in their 20s and 30s - the kind of people who might not usually go to West End shows, or even any kind of live theatre. It's almost as if Brown has been able to tap in to some need in this age-group, and has them eating out of his hand.
But it's not just Brown's illusions which are the reason for his appeal. There's no doubt that he's a consumate professional with a charismatic personality and charm. His style is slick and well-directed and he's a first-rate ad-libber who gently mocks the audience without giving any offence. Humour plays as much a part in his act as the magic, as does his ability to skilfully work the audience even when they assemble in large numbers on stage. In this show, the humour's more evident in the first half which is more relaxed and light-hearted than the second half where he adopts the role of a Victorian 'Oracle' answering questions that he's never even seen or heard!
Implored by Brown in a personal letter not to reveal some aspects of his show, I am not at liberty to describe the exact nature of the tricks and illusions which he performs. Actually, he needn't have worried - at least not in my case - because it would spoil the show to describe the tricks, and reviewers have to tread a fine line in how much detail to give away in order to provide a good indication of what's on offer. But I don't blame him for a gentle, and polite reminder, even if I was a little disappointed that his letter didn't reveal something about my future. Still, you can't have everything!
Brown repeatedly says that he isn't psychic – even though the title of the show actually tries to persuade us that he is! And I would agree with his statements, except for the fact that it is mind-boggling difficult to try to work out how he actually manages to tell people their names, birth months, and even the days on which they were born! Even allowing for the fact that some people will agree to anything suggested to them when standing nervously in front of a large audience, it's unlikely that he can rely on suggestion alone to get the right answers.
It was fascinating to listen to people as they streamed out of the Garrick. I don't think I've heard so much discussion from an audience about a show in a long time. And most of them seemed just as baffled and astonished as me about what they'd seen.
Fascinating, intriguing and almost totally unfathomable, Derren Brown's show is hugely entertaining and highly recommended.