Derren Brown: Svengali

Published June 14, 2011

It is impossible to write about Derren Brown’s newest West End show without falling into clichés. There are really only two options; start with a regretful apology explaining that you have been sworn to secrecy about the contents of the show or just go for the slightly lazy option and list the complete thesaurus results for the word ‘baffling’.

Both would be true of course. Brown is now somewhat of an eccentric national treasure, providing audiences with the perfect balance of giving them exactly what they expect and exactly what they don’t.

For Svengali, Brown neatly divides this into two halves. The first act is a whirlwind of psychological tricks, proving the human race to be depressingly predictable in the hands of a man who could thrash Freud in an analyse-off any day of the week. There are tricks that have the audience squirming in their seats with fear – sharp intakes of breath resonating around the auditorium – those that utterly defy belief and others that leave certain members of the audience rather red faced and wishing they had never got quite so intimate with certain domestic cleaning appliances. Be warned, you may reveal more than you ever wished during your two hours with Brown.

Act two becomes somewhat spookier as the meaning behind the show’s title becomes clear. Brown’s incredible knack for suggestion and mind control comes into play, and the charismatic performer leads the audience to a darker place as he takes us on a sinister interactive history lesson on the subject of the occult.

Yes the show is baffling, extraordinary, unexplainable and works up to a completely mind blowing climax that will ruin all chances of a good night’s sleep, but we would expect little else from the man. What those who have only seen him through the screen of a television may not expect is how much of a showman Brown is.

As he dashes around the stage and throws his now trademark frisbees into the dark auditorium, Brown is as eager as a drama student and puts as much energy into the show as a stand-up would, making the audience laugh and gasp in equal measures, and making sure he makes just enough ‘mistakes’ to reassure us he is human.

The cynic in me would suggest that this is a way of getting the audience on side. Surely a necessity when the final act requires a participant who has no problem with needles or any history of fainting. But in the hands of Brown, you’ll be dying to be the chosen one.

CM