Assembly George Square Studio 2, Edinburgh
There’s something distinctly old school about magician Chris Dugdale: the sharp suit, the comic patter, the cheeky persona… and many of his tricks are well-worn too. The opening routine where he swallows razorblades was popularised by Harry Houdini, while the bullet-catch is the same one that so tragically finished the career of Chung Ling Soo (William Ellsworth Robinson) in 1918, even if Dugdale has adapted it slightly, substituting a paintball gun for a revolver. But actually it’s great to see these classic routines done with such style and aplomb.
However, it’s his sleight-of-hand routines with playing cards that are (if you’ll forgive the pun) his strongest suit. These are conducted at a small table with a member of the audience sitting right beside him and a video camera projecting the whole thing onto a big screen behind. As you watch mesmerised, the cards appear to change suit every time he turns them over. It’s an accomplished piece of close up magic, one of the best I’ve seen.
Another routine, which he spins out through the show has a jaw-dropping payoff as Dugdale appears to undo all traces of everything we’ve seen during his act; and there’s a ‘mind-reading’ trick that had us wracking our brains in a ‘how did he do that?’ sort of way. It’s accomplished stuff, and his invitation to play cards for money with anyone from the audience later on is wisely ignored.
Maybe he might think of doing something bigger, more flamboyant next time out, but for now, this will do nicely. Oh yes, I just remembered. The trick with the Rubik’s cube. How on earth did he do that?
Pleasance, Queen Dome
Based around an intriguing real life tale featuring two of the 20th Century’s most celebrated figures, Impossible is about the escalating rivalry between escapologist/magician, Harry Houdini (very much the Derren Brown of his day) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. The two men were initially good friends, intrigued by each other’s abilities but Doyle’s belief in the supernatural (exacerbated, no doubt, by the untimely death of his son, Jack in the First World War) was at odds with Houdini’s desire to root out fake mediums and spiritualists wherever he encountered them. It didn’t help that Doyle’s wife was herself such a spiritualist and that Doyle saw Houdini’s refusal to explain how he accomplished his own ‘supernatural’ displays as a sign that he was really covering up his evident paranormal abilities. Eventually, the feud resulted in the two men becoming bitter enemies, which they remained until Houdini’s death in 1926.
Alan Cox is a confident and striking Houdini. With his exaggerated theatrical gestures and his strident personality, he convinces the audience that this is exactly how the man must have presented himself in real life. It’s nice also to see Phill Jupitus extending his range by giving us a dour, curmudgeonly Doyle, with a totally convincing Edinburgh accent. (If he got that wrong here, there would be a major problem!) There’s also some fascinating black and white cinema footage, including a reel from Willis O Brian’s groundbreaking stop-motion work for the film version of Doyle’s The Lost World, which in 1922, he playfully presented to a meeting of the Society of American Magicians as ‘psychic images of real dinosaurs.’ Many prominent magicians were completely taken in by it.
Handsomely mounted, nicely acted and with a genuinely poignant conclusion, this is definitely one to watch.