'Derren Brown Presents – Unbelievable' review – astonishing feats of mental wizardry

Read our three-star review of new magic show Derren Brown Presents – Unbelievable, now in performances at the Criterion Theatre to 7 April 2024.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Derren Brown is passing the baton and also widening his reach. That’s an immediate explanation for his latest West End show Unbelievable, in which the superstar mentalist proves that his gasp-inducing assemblage of tricks can indeed be taught.

And so we find an eclectic cast, headed by musicals regular Simon Lipkin, inheriting the mantle and leaving the public asking after the performance just how one or another onstage feat of mental wizardry was possibly accomplished. Brown doesn't appear in the show but it bears evidence of his brand at every turn.

How, for instance, could Hannah Price intuit so much from a laying on of hands on the part of a randomly selected public who gather by her at the piano, resting their palms on her shoulder?

That feat of musical telepathy is characteristic of the long-established milieu of a showbiz phenomenon whose acolytes can here gauge the exact amount of change belonging to Emma, seated up in the dress circle. And who know what are various audience members’ preferred beverages – the very same people who then are astonished to find themselves nursing a (free) Bailey’s, which is nothing to sneeze at given extortionate bar prices these days.

The show was co-written and directed by Brown and his longterm collaborator Andy Nyman (the Menier’s terrific Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof), along with Andrew O’Connor who conceived the venture. Special credit is surely due Jim Steinmeyer’s illusion design, which keeps things visually buoyant even as the production reaches into a third hour: as is sometimes the case with Brown’s work, the odd trim wouldn’t go amiss.

This one is certainly ambitious. The company includes musicians who function as a warm-up band before we’re urged to “strap (ourselves) in” and prepare for a wild ride. After some mumbo-jumbo about the interior/exterior existence of being an actor, we’re off into Derren Brown’s singular land, and brand, of amazement.

We watch three rings form a link that then becomes undone, whilst Lipkin dons an American accent and launches into a genial huckster routine that suggests he'd make a natural Harold Hill if and when The Music Man next gets a London airing.

We hear snatches of Ethel Merman alongside Charlie O’Connor’s original music, as well as choreography and movement from Dannielle “Rhimes” Lecointe that pushes Unbelievable towards semi-status as a musical.

Those keen to track ascendant careers may be surprised to see Samuel Creasey – the James Corden lookalike much-feted a season or two ago for The Book of Dust at the Bridge – as a game compere who knows his way round a prop-laden production where very little by definition is what it seems.

In his 2022 solo piece Showman, Brown shook a proven formula up by allowing his own story to inform the sleight-of-hand: the result leant emotional ballast to the trickery that is his stock-in-trade.

Unbelievable could use more such feeling, as well as a tighter rein over those chosen from the audience who are often left standing in the aisles in what can sometimes seem an inadvertent exercise in crowd control. I was as gobsmacked as anyone by the confounding nature of much of the material, but only once was I actually moved.

That came in the second act when a sweet-faced 11-year-old called Samuel came onstage to participate in a trick involving a bowl and a balloon that is itself presented, after a fashion, as a lesson in gratitude.

I’m not sure whether Brown is keeping a long-term eye on his own legacy. But if he is interested in the next generation or two perpetuating his highly specialised skill set, he could do worse than call once again upon Samuel at some point in the future, which as we know belongs without trickery but entirely truthfully to the young.

Derren Brown Presents – Unbelievable is at the Criterion Theatre through 7 April 2024. Book Derren Brown Presents – Unbelievable tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Derren Brown Presents – Unbelievable (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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