Like ice-skating, magic is constantly attempting to redeem itself from its end-of-the-pier roots. And while audiences hold their breath as skaters pirouette and delight in the thrills (and slip-ups) of the ice so, in magic, viewers are desperate to be amazed or find out how the trick is done or see it go wrong. Magic for me works best when you’re up close to the magician. And there’s nothing better than seeing magic live.
Impossible is a hugely entertaining, high octane portmanteau production that brings to mind that old saying of some years ago – “magic is the new rock ‘n’ roll” – when the likes of sexed-up David Blaine came on the scene. But with Impossible, magic is cast as the new stand-up. The dizzying show has taken elements of ancient street magic and allied them to high-tech – roving live cameras capture the action on giant screens.
Half a dozen magicians and illusionists take turns. Mindreader Chris Cox acts as emcee. Some acts have an added gimmick to the usual shtick: stand-up’s flair for quick repartee and audience engagement or, in the case of Magical Bones, a breakdancing street conjurer from south London, hip-hop. A trained dancer, he’s appeared with Madonna and the Black Eyed Peas and he does some truly astonishing tricks like finding the lady inside a Crunchie bar or catching the chosen card as he backward somersaults. The guy is seriously limber.
Few magic tricks are ever entirely new and there’s a quickfire and edgy take in Impossible that makes the show difficult to dislike. Jonathan Goodwin resurrects some of those old staples like the bed of nails trick. The twist is that, shirtless, he planks himself on top of a single nail while an audience member places a breezeblock on his stomach and whacks it with a sledgehammer.
We meet in Edinburgh’s the Caves in advance of Impossible‘s March date at the Playhouse. He’s tall, lean, with a shaved head, and dressed all in black save for a grey hoodie. According to his own website, Goodwin is an expert escapologist, knife-thrower, free-climber, archer, marksman, diver, stunt artist, strength performer and motivational speaker. The kind of dude you want on your side if you get into a scrape. He has appeared on TV’s How Not to Become Shark Bait (no, me neither) and is quite open about the morbid fascination audiences have with seemingly death-defying or crazy-dangerous stunts. “It’s human nature,” he says and in that regard, “things haven’t changed much since the days of the gladiators.” Goodwin is quick to stress that there’s no star of the show, no showstopper. It’s a collective effort.
Society is more codified and coddled than ever with its compulsive-obsessive health and safety laws. And that’s one of the reasons why magic is so appealing – we hanker for risk and danger. One stunt Goodwin won’t be doing at the Playhouse is bursting a balloon out of someone’s hand with a crossbow while blindfolded as he did at the press launch. A step too far.
One of his heroes is the great Victorian tightrope walker Blondin (1824–1897) who in 1862 at London’s Crystal Palace walked on a tightrope 55 metres (180 feet) above a concrete floor. He pushed his five-year-old daughter Adele in a wheelbarrow as she dropped rose petals to the large audience below. The press and the public were appalled at seeing a child put at such risk. A step too far.
“Each performer comes with their own perspective in Impossible and for the audience there are plenty of ‘oh shit!’ moments,” he says. One of his routines involves him hanging upside down in a straitjacket that is then set alight. It’s a graphic spectacular that has audiences looking away. Let’s hope he doesn’t befall the same fate of the Great Lafayette who, appearing at Edinburgh’s Empire (now the Festival Theatre) in 1911 died when a fire act went horribly wrong. Just saying.
Impossible is @ Edinburgh Playhouse from Tue 15 to Sat 19 Mar 2016;
and @ King’s Theatre, Glasgow, from Tue 21 to Sat 25 Jun 2016