Review – Derren Brown – Miracle (needed)

They say, “Never meet your heroes”. Nothing to do with halitosis apparently. It’s something about your expectations exceeding the reality and tempting disappointment.

Since he first started reading minds on TV over a decade ago, Derren Brown has been an absolute hero to me, almost a god. He inspired my second novel and motivated me to practice prestidigitation and mentalism right up and into the Magic Circle (available for weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, etc.).

I even met him once and though, sadly, nothing magical passed between us, we also didn’t have the opportunity to disappoint each other. And we both were far too polite to mention the halitosis.

What they don’t say is, “Never see your heroes live and working at what they’re supposed to be best at”. Which is why I allowed myself some expectations when I sat down to witness his latest West End show Miracle. A title filled with irony and yet unable to hide the fact the show really needs one.

It’s not that Brown’s effects were transparent, though a couple were surprisingly so. And it’s not that he has lost any of his charisma, though in the second half he does try to ape charismatic faith healers in a theatrical expose that falls short. It’s just that, unlike the preachers he attempts to shame, his heart just doesn’t seem to be in it. Presumably the greed that drives American faith healers, spurs them into passionate reveries, a misapprehended dedication which inspires their followers. Brown attempts to copy these evangelical tirades but then, almost immediately, is betrayed by his own disgust for the characters he’s impersonating as well as a lack of, dare I say it, faith… in his own cause.

Oh darn it. Now I’ve revealed something that was in the show. And he had asked us all so nicely at the beginning, not to tell anyone what we were going to witness.

And honestly, if Brown had produced something truly unique or original or just looked like it took some effort or care, I would be respecting his wishes and be offering you so much exultant, content free, wind. But I got the feeling that his desire for secrecy may have had more to do with a lack of confidence in the production than a desire to surprise and delight further audiences; that if potential ticket buyers knew more, they just might stop coming.

So what’s gone wrong?

Simply, it seems that Brown and fellow genius/mentalist/actor/other hero director Andy Nyman have failed to dress the effects with the care that they used to. What made Brown such a class-leading, unique performer was his ability to build stories around his effects with beautiful logic that created almost entirely credible explanations. Brown’s fans mould themselves in his image, they see themselves as intelligent, thoughtful, and sceptical if not downright cynical – but then they swear by his declared techniques. So if, for example, you put enough subliminal suggestions around an ad writer’s journey to work you will be able to influence him to come up with a precise idea you’ve already predicted. Obvs! If you find a truly compliant person, whittled from a large group through a bunch of psychological games, you can safely play Russian Roulette with them. For sure! If you crowd-source your lottery numbers, the group will come up with the winning combination. Well. The first two anyway. But Miracle just feels cobbled together; like they could no longer be bothered to put the work in.

Even the audience seemed less enrapt by the great man.

“Was there a reason you thought of that particular number?” Brown quizzed a gentleman who had earlier been selected to dream one up.

“Because that’s the one you told me before the show,” the man replied. Brown cringed and repeated several times that that was not the case, sounding rather like the lady who protesteth too much and not the old Brown who might have confidently joined in the fun with a, “how am I going to get away with the ‘no stooge’ thing now?…” or whatever.

In Absolute Magic, Brown’s bible for magicians on the art of magical performance, he insists that, “You must entertain and enthral, and not drift into risible pretension or alienate with an insensitively handled agenda.” Unfortunately, with Miracle, Brown does just that.

In the first half, he clumsily tries to inject an agenda, about the deadening aspects of the mid-life crisis and the reviving qualities of risk, into a number of unoriginal effects. Effects which have either been seen so often the risk appears minimal – such as the game of Russian Roulette involving a spike hidden in one of a number of identical paper bags (an effect so well-trodden Brown preceded it with a montage of YouTube videos of worse magicians getting the trick wrong) – or simply lacking the dramatic build up to mean much or give credibility. When he got an audience member to dine on a broken lightbulb with him, he offered a half-hearted suggestion that taking a risk like this would help her be braver about finding her own way in life. A large part of this was whilst she was off-stage and most of it was said only after the effect was over. I’m sure the Derren Brown who was my hero would have used his miracle making, mesmerising authority to build up the spectator until she really believed she could do this impossible thing, and only then would she cautiously be allowed to put the glass in her mouth. But he barely tried, and she simply, trustingly, put the glass in her mouth, chewed and swallowed it.

Afterwards, as she was ushered to her seat, Brown instructed the audience “Obviously don’t try this at home, you need someone like me to talk you through it.” But that’s it. No theatre, no attempt to create an impossible story around it and would my hero, the old Brown, even suggest that there was anyone like him?

It was in the second half that Brown tried to take on the persona of a faith healer. One girl started crying on stage because she thought she’d been cured from crippling anxiety only to get up on stage and be faced with the full force of it. Brown seemed lost for words. He was at once affecting change for those who would believe and yet trying to peddle an anti-belief message; you are the agent of your own change etc. It’s a familiar tightrope for him and yet, in Miracle, it proved an impossible one.

And there we have it. The conviction that Brown put into his TV work seems to have, hopefully briefly, departed him in Miracle. With that unshakable self-belief gone, he fails to inspire, the experience seems a little empty and one wonders whether this is Brown’s own mid-life crisis enacted on stage.

It’s not easy to watch gods become mortal. Yet, in showing his feet of clay, Brown unconsciously points to the footprints he has left behind. Miracle will remind you that we shouldn’t take for granted the wonders he has created, what astonishments he has wrought and how, over the years, he has taught us all to be a little more sceptical and question what we see. In Miracle we see more vulnerable Derren Brown, we see that he is a human after all, but that, as he reminds us at the beginning of the show, is quite a miracle in itself.

 

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For what we are about to receive…

She hands me an exquisitely wrapped box and smiles. “Happy Christmas”.

I open it, racking my brains for the appropriate response.

“It’s lovely.” “Thank you.” “That’s so thoughtful.” “How did you know?” “What an amazing idea.” “Oh that’s perfect…”

I’m impossible at Christmas (and birthdays). My phrasebook of gratitude is painfully thin. What’s more, I’m convinced that any of my utterances from it are totally transparent. I’m only trying to fill the void between my embarrassment at receiving a gift and my desperation not to hurt the feelings of the person who gave it. Because however lovely the gift, something tells me it’s not what I’m really grateful for and I’m in terror that I’ll be called out on my blatant insincerity:

“Oh, you’re just saying that.”

“No, no I was thinking just the other day I could really do with a… a um… nutcracker. And the fact it resembles a gilded scrotum makes it simply hilarious. And such a talking point. Thank you so much.”

My upper-lip-stiffening upbringing instilled in me an inflated sense of self-worthlessness; so spend over a tenner on me and I squirm with embarrassment. Then again, go for something under that price point and really, there is nothing I need, or want, that I haven’t bought for myself already. It’s Gift 22.

I realise that might seem bonkers but don’t give me a psychology book about it or, come December 28th, I’m off down Waterstones explaining how the book’s Jung, gifted and back.

“Actually it’s a sculpture Holly made of her baby brother.”

“Oh yes! Absolutely.”

“She made it in Play-Doh and we thought it was so brilliant we took a mould and a clever Chinese company on the internet made some lovely gold plated models.”

“Isn’t it wonderful? There’s an eye … and the nose poking out below it.” I fondle and tweak the little baby nose.

“That’s not an eye, that’s the belly button,” she says, archly.

In the artificial setting of the Christmas celebration, giving is easy, it’s gratitude that’s hard. Genuine thanks seems a sliver of an emotion, something that can just be glimpsed between the fear of indebtedness and the pride of entitlement. In America they try to get the whole thing out of the way early by having their ‘Thanksgiving’ a month earlier. But then, if Thanks is a gift in itself, you’re caught in an infinite paradigm: thanking people for giving thanks which they will need to thank you for ad nauseam.

My kids are no better. We love them and we’ve done our best to protect them from suffering any deprivation. We do our best to give them everything they need when they need it (or the day after thanks to Amazon Prime). So the presents under the Christmas tree are guaranteed to only ever be excess. We have wrapped the kids up as carefully as their gifts and protected them from tragedy. But in doing so we’ve deprived them of the opportunity to experience real gratitude. Even so, I’ve tried to teach them to say “Thank You” and ape the responses one might imagine being truly grateful entails. We’ve done all that and that’s all the thanks we get!

Not knowing how to be grateful is a true “first-world problem”. Genuine gratitude, in all the privilege and safety that being western and middle class bestows, is rarer than McTruffles because it depends on tragedy or misfortune to precede it; things we’re superb at avoiding. But a place to hide in the Holocaust, a solid Greek beach for a refugee, or a hand pulling you up from the window ledge of the Bataclan; when those who have been plucked from disaster try to describe their gratefulness it is as an emotional euphoria.

Cicero called gratitude “not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of all the others”. Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments wrote, “All the members of human society stand in need of each other’s assistance, and are likewise exposed to mutual injuries. Where the necessary assistance is reciprocally afforded from love, from gratitude, from friendship, and esteem, the society flourishes and is happy.” According to studies by scientists gratitude strengthens the immune system, lowers blood pressure, provides higher levels of positive emotions, more joy, optimism, and happiness and inspires altruism. It’s the ultimate thing that money just can’t buy. In this age and society of abundance, the one gift we could all do with eludes us.

But in that moment, holding my tiny golden scrotum, I look at my present giver and even I, with my pre-prepared stock phrases of appreciation, catch a tantalising vestigial sensation of gratitude: that my friends, and my family, still regard me as a part of them, still tolerate me, that they’ve pretty much forgiven my many many mistakes and, above all, can be counted on to be there with a bucket when I come down with a dose of schmaltz.

Happy Christmas (and thanks).

 

First published in

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