London's new magicians
There‘s a dazzling, disturbing new breed of conjurers on London‘s variety scene. Time Out is spellbound
This Friday, at the Soho Revue Bar, something horrific is going to happen. It may involve knives, blood, suicide, pornography, threats of physical violence and abusive language. People may die. But don’t panic. What you’ll be witnessing is a performance by 2magicians – aka Barry Jones and Stuart McLeod – a duo of self-proclaimed ‘tricky fuckers’ dragging magic kicking, screaming and bleeding heavily into 2007. The Great Soprendo, this ain’t.
London has a lively history of magical acts, and a motley crew of people performing them. The French illusionist Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, touted as the ‘father of modern magic’, arrived in the capital in 1848, mesmerising audiences at the Hippodrome with his levitation. Then there was John Nevil Maskelyne, who performed at the Egyptian Hall on Piccadilly between 1873 and 1904, and is credited with creating a host of new tricks . And, in 1905, Chung Ling Soo arrived here– actually New Yorker, William Robinson. Famous for his ‘bullet catching’ trick, he met his end on-stage at Wood Green Empire in 1918; one of his assistants inadvertently shot him.
Audiences in this golden era were very different; superstition and a belief in spiritualism meant that the tricks were seen by many as real. Modern, cynical city-dwellers are less easily impressed. Which is perhaps why, somewhere along the line, magic lost its magic. ‘It’s become fashionable to be anti-magic,’ agrees Stu. ‘But what we do is dark, gothic, bloody, often violent tricks. We’re interested in making it relevant to today.’
Which means not being afraid to shock. The duo’s 2005 Channel 4 show, ‘The Magic of Jesus’, brought an apoplectic response from Christians, with tricks including feeding 5,000 football fans with five loaves and two fishes, and making a virgin pregnant (the latter performed with the help of an ultrasound machine). Bishop Michael Reid said: ‘The difference between a couple of tricksters performing illusions and our Lord’s miracles is that Jesus actually healed people, raised the dead and forgave sins. Maybe these two fraudsters could try being crucified to see if they can rise again three days later.’
They’re unapologetic about the black tone of their act. ‘When you think about it, cutting a woman in half is pretty dark but if it’s performed by an LA or ITV magician it will be very clean and with no blood. We put the blood back in.’
With their anarchic and diverse act, it’s unsurprising that 2magicians should find a home on London’s resurgent cabaret scene. On Friday, Barry and Stu will be appearing on an all-magic bill (alongside a mind-reader and an escape artist ), but they say this is unusual. ‘We often do comedy clubs, or perform with other cabaret and variety acts that don’t fit anywhere else.’
Magic is permeating other variety nights, too. The Seventh Night at Ginglik in Shepherd’s Bush will feature close-up magic alongside variety performances and music; and A Night of Hats, Magic & Cabaret at Lost Society in Clapham takes the aesthetic as its theme (although they haven’t actually booked a magician).
It’s fortunate that these nights are so welcoming, since the capital’s magic establishment can be off-putting. ‘The Magic Circle? We’re not a part of all that – it’s a social club for old people.’ That’s not to say that they are trashing the art form’s heritage. ‘We consider what we’re doing to be a continuation of the tradition of magic. We try to come up with our own tricks, but we rely heavily on nineteenth-century techniques – optical principles, sleight of hand.’
The tricks aren’t performed, however, without physical risk. ‘Things do go wrong. There’s one trick where Barry swallows a load of razorblades, then ties them together with his tongue and pulls them out. There’s a lot of stage blood, but most nights he also slices the inside of his mouth to shreds.’
And if that’s not cutting-edge magic, we don’t know what is.
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