Way back in 2009, during Derren Brown’s televised event ‘How to Control the Nation’, a friend of mine claimed she’d been subliminally controlled and that she was physically unable to stand up from her seat. Being teenagers, and apparently raging cynics, we all took the piss out of her relentlessly.
After watching his latest live extravaganza ‘Showman’, I have to apologise to my mate. Perhaps it was a trick of the light; perhaps I’ve become much more receptive to subliminal suggestion as I’ve aged: however he did it, Brown got me. I can sincerely say that, despite my best efforts to remain a skeptic, a good five to ten seconds were completely erased from my memory.
Without stating the obvious, if you’ve only ever seen Derren Brown on the telly, only in person do you really experience how hypnotic he is. There’s an excitable, almost unruly audience at the Apollo on opening night, but it doesn’t take much for them to become puppets at the end of the illusionist’s string. Brown’s unwavering poise and trademark gallows humour carry a show that swings – often very suddenly – on the pendulum between playful and sobering, heartfelt and horrifying.
The show’s tricks lean on these polarities. One minute there’s a circus-like atmosphere, with balloon-popping games, giant teddy bears and clever card tricks; but before you know it, Brown can rapidly turn the mood on its head. Without giving too much away, it’s the moments of solemn hush that will stay with you after the show, rather than the easy-hit tricks.
All of these moments sit neatly under the show’s overarching theme, which is a rather ambitious one: that of our collective experience of life and death. At times, this can become slightly saccharine – the regrets of the dying projected across the back of the stage, for example – and there were some instances where Brown’s interactions with audience members could have been a little more delicate. But, of course, Derren Brown wouldn’t be Derren Brown without remaining stoic while his audience experiences the whole gamut of human emotion.
In any case, my advice is this: prepare to feel it all. Pathos and delight, laughter and alarm. ‘Showman’ does everything a Derren Brown show sets out to do – you’ll begin whispering ‘there’s no way, that guy had to be an actor’, and you’ll end up in the pub, deconstructing every moment. As ever, the question remains: seriously, how the fuck did he do that?