Review by Daz Gale
If you went to see Derren Brown’s incredible Showman in the West End last year, you would have found a strange coaster at every seat which led you to a video announcing his latest show Unbelievable – an innovative way to tease a new show and create buzz long before the official announcement came months later. This show had several differences from his usual, most notably the fact that he doesn’t actually appear in it. Could Derren’s writing still create a show as captivating as the last, or would the loss of him on stage lose a bit of magic in the production?
A co-production with The Mercury Theatre Colchester who got to premiere the show ahead of its West End run last month, Unbelievable takes a markedly different approach to your usual magic show, combining elements from all different varieties of show to create one big theatrical spectacular. In this show, magic is fused with illusion and live music to create an experience like no other in a show that is a feast for the senses.
When reviewing a show like this one, there is a delicate balance that must be taken as a lot of the content of the show including tricks and its payoffs rely on the element of surprise. With that in mind, I will only refer to specific parts of the show as vaguely as possible, commenting on their impact rather than revealing any of the secrets. Unbelievable is the kind of show that should be experienced first-hand and if you know what’s coming, it is going to lessen the impact significantly. Consider this review a spoiler free zone,
Written by Derren Brown, Andy Nyman and Andrew O’Connor, Unbelievable attempts to do something new with the genre, turning it on its head to an extent. Derren’s distinctive writing style is still present, even if he is not, with one cast member referring to him writing the very words he is speaking at that moment at one point. To that extent, the writing can’t be faulted with all of the humour, banter and surprising sentimentality you would have gotten used to at Derren Brown’s previous shows.
Where the show falters somewhat is in its structure. One segment follows another with seemingly no correlation. While they are decent enough as standalone scenes, you would expect a common thread to tie them all together. There are repeated references to comparing your insides to other people’s outsides but this repeated usage of the phrase doesn’t appear naturally and doesn’t always relate to the show itself. Perhaps I expected something else due to the overwhelming and emotional payoff the true purpose of Derren Brown’s Showman revealed in its closing moments, but the lack of this cohesive structure let the production down slightly. There is, of course, the argument that a cohesive narrative isn’t necessarily needed for a show such as this and it can be enjoyed simply as a series of scenes that don’t relate to one another aside from their unbelievable nature. However, it did seem like a more powerful theme was being attempted but sadly didn’t translate as effectively as had been anticipated.
I promised not to get into specifics of the acts so as to not spoil anything and I am a man of my word so I won’t. What I will say is all of the tricks were exceptionally done. Unbelievable is a deeply clever show, whether it is revealing how a trick is done or regularly blowing your mind, leaving me constantly awestruck as I failed to work out how the acts were done. Highlights to look out for are a trick involving the taste of water, a truly satisfying and sensational segment involving an amazingly skilled musician and a quite beautiful trick involving cast member Yolanda Ovide with a balloon.
Rather than recruit a group of magicians in his absence, Derren Brown has instead opted to go for actors – what could possibly go wrong? The answer to that is absolutely nothing as they bring their expertise to an area they hadn’t previously dabbled in with brilliant results. Simon Lipkin brings a bit of musical theatre to proceedings in a commanding performance which sees his larger-than-life personality shining on the stage, creating an inspired new use of his immeasurable talents. Samuel Creasey is another standout in a fabulously comedic turn, at times feeling like it belongs in a pantomime but refreshingly so. His interactions with the audience were every bit as stunning as his unrivalled ability to milk the humour out of the most spontaneous of moments. The scenes Samuel and Simon shared on stage together created true theatre magic which had me longing to see more of them in their own double act,
The use of music in Unbelievable brought something new while showcasing how perfectly the art blends with magic. Highlights include magician’s assistant Laura Andresen Guimaraes delivering an unexpected musical number while getting herself in a tricky position, Simon Lipkins musical numbers and an absolute standout sequence from Hannah Price and her fantastic musical talents. With an atmospheric soundtrack a permanent feature of this show, expect a varied use of instruments, live vocals and some surprising magic from these sequences in a truly innovative approach. A special mention has to go to the flawless sound design from Nicola T. Chang and Mark Cornwell, ensuring everything was delivered and heard as planned.
Shows such as this one rely on audience participation and there really is no shortage of that in Unbelievable with multiple chances to interact with the cast and join them on stage. If you are of a shyer nature, perhaps the front row isn’t the best place to sit – though nobody is safe anywhere in the theatre with audience members regularly being asked to join them on stage from the circle. With the show becoming unique each night due to its unpredictable nature of interactions with the audience, it requires a great deal of improvising from the exceptional cast – all of whom manage it with ease, and no shortage of humour. Even when something went wrong or an audience member didn’t quite do what was expected, this brilliant cast didn’t miss a beat.
The direction from Derren Brown, Andy Nyman and Andrew O’Connor was a bit of a mixed affair. While it led to some great moments, there was a bit of a pacing problem throughout others and a real overwhelming lack of consistency across the entire show. Hayley Grindle’s set design led to some beautiful reveals with a great use of video design from Simon Wainwright perfectly complementing this.
Unbelievable is a great show in itself - the way it attempts to do something new with the genre and bring different elements in is admirable and works for the most part. However, at times not all of these ideas paid off as seamlessly as hoped, leaving a show that can be wildly inconsistent. That’s not to say any element of Unbelievable isn’t enjoyable, it’s just underwhelming in certain moments. At its best though, it really is theatre magic at its finest. A couple of tweaks here and there and a more cohesive structure to the show and it could be even better than that.
Unbelievable plays at the Criterion Theatre until 7th April 2024. Tickets from https://unbelievablelive.com