A magician, Hugo Cedar, known after his final performance – or should that read posthumously? – as The Vanishing Man, had apparently come up with the perfect trick. Very early on June 20th 1930 he stood on London Bridge for three hours, for much of that time still and silent, and then at 08.40, in front of dozens of onlookers, appeared to vanish. He was never seen or heard of again, and the mystery of what happened remains unsolved. Friday's Old Fire Station date was the 18th of this touring show, a two-hander from actors Simon Evans (a working magician and theatrical magic adviser) and actor/director David Aula who sought to illuminate this conundrum while discoursing on the theory of magic and a stream of associated topics.
I really, really wanted to like this 95 minute slice of drama. As a boy I devoured a biography of Harry Houdini, whose escaping feats, chained and handcuffed from inside padlocked milk churns thrown into frozen rivers, thrilled me with their audacity. Secondly, the OFS stage is small, so even a full Friday audience was up satisfyingly close and personal with the action, especially the magic action. Thirdly, the two performers possess likeable personae, bursting with energy and bonhomie, a bit of an ad-lib feel to their script, rarely lost for words when even this well-behaved audience behaved erratically. The omens were set fair. So why did I emerge at the end a little subdued?
The show was signposted beforehand as not a magic show but a show about magic. Inevitably, though, there was a decent smattering of tricks – but did they all have to be card tricks, short on visual pizzazz and necessarily small scale? I wanted white rabbits, festoons of streamers and stooges being sawn in half with oodles of gore as we screamed. Talking of whom, our duo did make good use of them in another context. One of the themes of the show was the nature of perception – whether looking was seeing and whether both of them were believing, and as stooges were called from the audience and primed, we came to doubt their nature and identity. But then, as sequence after sequence of the act had audience members being told what to call out so as to create faux-repartee, the effect became numbed by overuse and predictability, and the energy of the performers notwithstanding, a slight whiff of laziness hung in the air.
This perception theme was touched on, and so was the equally interesting one about the way an audience buys into a magic show or indeed any visual experience to the extent that enthusiasm and willingness to be both entertained and deceived can conquer disbelief and warp common-sense. But alas, both were left unexplored as our merry duo fell back instead upon hollering and chasing-its-tail bombast.
But the big let-down was we never did get to see either of our bold lads vanish. Why, you might as well put on Cinderella without her pumpkin or Popeye without his spinach. As for Hugo Cedar himself, where did he go, who did he become, was he escaping from something or forging towards a new dawn? Doesn't the name sound a bit dodgy? Was he a newspaper stunt, an escapee from Bedlam, Lord Lucan's dad, a tourist from Planet Zog? Did he even exist at all?