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Derren Brown is a master of his craft, wowing audiences across the country with his bamboozling mind tricks. This month, he’s returned to the West End with Underground, a compilation of tricks from previous shows. We spoke to Derren to find out how he put the show together, what he thinks of being called a ‘showman’ and why he loves acting.
You’re back in London with what’s basically a ‘best-of’ show. How did that come about?
It’s a show that’s sort of become a ‘best-of’. Originally I didn’t have a desire to do a best-of show as such. I was workshopping a show in London - we called it Underground because it was underneath Charing Cross Station - and it was to put a show together to take abroad to people who hadn’t seen me before. That meant I could use previous material I’ve done here, and it ended up feeling like a really good show we could do here as well. I wasn’t quite sure how the idea of doing a best of show would go down, hopefully it isn’t like the end of my career which is what a best-of show might sound like. But on paper it’s definitely the strongest show because it has all the best stuff in it.
You’ve done seven stage shows during a career spanning over a decade. How did you pick your favourite bits?
We drew up a big list of bits, of which there are many more than we put in the show, and it was a question of grammatically, what would work together. It’s no good having six bits that are really long. We worked to a template that we’ve found works really well in the show, but we left quite a lot over. Maybe it’s something we can revisit another time, I’m not sure. We definitely included all the ‘must-haves’. There are some bits I really wanted to do, but there were no reasons to add in another extended piece.
You took the show to the US to make your New York debut, titled Secret. Is cracking Broadway something you’ve had your sights set on?
Well I’ve never really had an aim, I try and avoid having ambitions. Going to New York seemed like a fun thing to do for a bit. Live over there and see what Broadway would feel like. I’ll certainly be going back to America next year, possibly Broadway. It was very different, we were performing in an Off-Broadway theatre about one-tenth the size of some of the theatres I perform in here. Different responses, the audiences are very vocal in New York. They have a strong sense of being a room of individuals rather than being in a crowd. It was a lot of different people shouting “no way” to what they were seeing on stage.
I’d like to explore more of that, but you have to find a balance. I don’t necessarily want to spend six months of the year touring here and then the other six months being out in New York. But it’s another exciting thing to do.
People often praise you for your ‘showmanship’ on stage. Is that something that came naturally to you, or did you have to work on it over time?
It’s an odd one because I hear it a lot and I don't really know what to think of it. Magic is very bad drama, you’ve got a guy who can click his fingers and make stuff happen. It’s not very interesting dramatically. I’ve always thought of showmanship as a cheap substitute for drama, so I never know quite what to think of it. In real life I’m just a bit shy and not very showy. So maybe it’s just another side of me that comes out. I envy those performers whose art is a real expression of them.
My image of what a showman is, is slightly slick and slippery and maybe not necessarily that nice. I’ve got to accept it because people say it often but I just feel like I’m being a very charismatic version of myself.
Maybe some of that has come from acting in your stage shows, you must be a pretty good actor?
I don’t know if I’ve learnt to act, but it’s a very comfortable form of acting. I’m very interested in acting. I don’t know if it would work out with timing or if it would work out, but I’m really fascinated by the idea of doing some acting. On stage, rather than on screen.
What kind of role would you play if you were given the chance?
I don’t know. There was talk of a Sherlock Holmes-y thing at one point that was floated a while ago, but I never have enough time which is frustrating. I’ve been performing on stage for 15 years now and grown with the shows as they’ve grown. Just going back and revisiting material with this show as been interesting to see how I’ve changed and become more comfortable on stage.
Right in the early days, I remember people saying to me “more energy!” and I didn’t know what they meant. Did they mean more shouting? But now, it’s a very comfortable mode for me. I read a lot of books about acting and love watching actors. It’s a bit of a passion for me, even if I don’t go out and do it.
Do you have something in your career that you’re most proud of?
I’ve never really experience pride, as such, when I look at the work. I’m proud of it in the sense that I can look back on it and it’s good work. But that’s all decisions you’ve made and people you’ve worked with. Actually locating a feeling of pride comes from times when what I’ve done has made a difference to someone else’s life. Shows like Apocalypse and Hero at 30,000 Feet, where someone benefitted in their everyday life. Television can feel like a hollow thing, so if you actually feel like you’ve made a proper difference in somebody’s life, then that’s lovely.
Derren Brown Underground Tickets are available now.