Edinburgh being what it is, and suffering from something of festival-overkill in the summer months, it can be easy to overlook the smaller events. This is possibly why, despite having run for nearly a decade, the Edinburgh International Magic Festival (or Magicfest as it is now known) feels slightly under the radar – a little hidden, a little “word-of-mouth”. This is, in many ways, a good thing – it allows for the thing in question to feel more exclusive, a shared secret between yourself and other enthusiasts. But the organisers’ decision to move the festival to earlier in the year – May rather than July – has undoubtably been a smart move, as well as an understandable one, in terms of attention garnered. And one thing it most definitely allows, is for the annual closing Gala to feel more like a fitting finale – a proper send-off for another year, rather than another show lost in a sea of just-around-the-corner festivals snapping at its heels.
Essentially a variety show, the Magicfest Gala brings out a series of the biggest names in contemporary magic – expertly and warmly compered by Kevin Quantum, himself an engaging trickster, investigating the cross-over between magic and science, and how the two can celebrate, rather than fight, one another. The headline act, illusionists Magus Utopia, are given the most stage-time, closing both the first and second half. The atmosphere they create is spellbinding – dark, unsettling and full of dread, with a smattering of bondage-style clothing thrown in for good measure. It is a great spectacle and, despite the family-friendly nature of the rest of the show, genuinely scary. Admittedly, some of the illusions are better than others – the body of a separated head is very obviously concealed by huge skirts – but the overall effect is compelling, particularly when pyrotechnics are introduced. When a bird cage explodes into flames, you can feel the heat from the stalls.
The other acts, each comprising only a single performer, are afforded a lot less in terms of theatrics, set dressing and fireworks. But the talent is no less, though the skills on display are delightfully strange. The Card Ninja (aka Javier Jarquin) is an expert at card tricks – but rather than the standard “was yours the Queen of Hearts”, he showcases card boomerang, card juggling and elegant card throwing (reaching the lower balcony). It is punctuated by decent stand-up and a stage presence bursting with energy, though the spoken elements are slightly weaker.
James Freedman, professional pickpocket and gentleman thief, is a slower-burn to begin with – it feels as if the audience are slightly unsure how to respond to a man politely telling him that he knows where their valuables are, and would be only too happy to take them off their hands. The pay-off however – when it becomes apparent that the two willing “victims” on stage are not the only people to be a little light – is masterful, and mesmerising. Freedman’s hands are allegedly insured for £1 million, which is clearly a sound investment.
There’s a completely different kind of magic on show when MC Hammersmith takes to the stage – less slight of hand and more silver of tongue. Appearing at first as a shy, somewhat repressed ex-public school attendee, he requests, wonderfully awkwardly, that the front two rows approach the stage holding aloft the oddest thing in their bags or pockets, before blazing through an incredible freestyle rap. Tom Crosbie occupies a similar space of the consciously geeky magician, except that his gift is lightning-fast Rubik’s Cube solving, the finale being when he pulls off the quickest of his set whilst blind-folded.