Entering to muzak, the audience are greeted by a smiling man wearing what must be the world’s smallest bow tie. “Thanks so much for coming”, he intones whilst giving an ‘in loving memory’ programme for the proceedings. It is revealed that A Disappearing Act comprises the funeral for cruise ship magician Philip Winterbottom, overseen by his son Brandon (Bradley Wayne Smith) and assistant Nicola (Filipa Tomas). The two hob-nob with the audience, passing out hankies, making small talk and constructing whole narratives that get increasingly elaborate (“don’t you remember that time we were all in the Bahamas…?”) Is it a barbed comment that I brought a “big hunk of Stilton” on my fictitious cheese platter? Possibly, but it’s more wilfully absurd than offensive. As the “funeral” programme makes plain for those reading: “your presence is fundamental.”
What follows (pleasingly, the order in the programme is actually adhered to) is a dazzling and sustained slice of artifice as the audience have to conga line from the auditorium behind the curtain into a smaller array of seats clustered around a “memorial box”. This is full of various objects which later are removed to help perform various magical interludes. Throughout A Disappearing Act, members of the audience become participants, donning costumes or props to take part in the funeral service. AJ, performed brilliantly by a chap in the audience with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek as he laughs through the bulk of his “lines”, sums up this element when he declares “everything is random.”
Coming across as a pastiche of social mores and how we are coerced by the dressings and trappings of ceremony, naturally the late and lamented Philip would have to be in the business of illusion. Setting all of this chaos at a funeral service makes it paradoxically ghastly yet fitting. Perhaps the American accents of our intrepid duo increase this tacky sense of the private being made public at such a ceremony. “I sometimes laugh a little, just before I cry”, Nicola informs audience members at the start; the divisions between the two erode hereafter as they merge into one. Philip’s memorial feels more like a sales promotion than an opportunity to express grief – and perhaps that’s the entire point.
The flyers for A Disappearing Act ask that we “come take part” and they are not joking. Perhaps the biggest testament to the success of this show is just how it wins over the audience and makes them not only participate, but enjoy doing so. It was fascinating to watch one lady get up to leave when being spoken to by Brandon as she thought she had stumbled into a genuine funeral service for his father. Others were initially hostile, fearing they were going to be asked to make a financial contribution (!) It was when everyone was rounded up and taken to the stage-within-a-stage that a sense of harmony began to develop. Maybe it was the proximity, the carefully structured magic tricks or simply the passing around of biscuits. The entire row behind me screamed and jumped when in the dark, feeling that something had touched them. An urn magically lowering into position also spooked several, and it can’t hurt that we are fast approaching Halloween, with images like the fluorescent string being tied between people in a pattern akin to a pentagram.
From being reluctant to engaged, spooked and ultimately strangely euphoric, this was a thoroughly successful piece of theatre that hit all its marks. “How come all funerals can’t be like this?”, I heard a member of the audience say as Brandon and Nicola took a bow. Superb.