Is seeing really believing? Do we only see what we want to believe? And can others make us believe something that is quite literally unbelievable? These are a few of the questions explored in this hour of unorthodox magic, which blends sleight-of-hand, metaphysics, humour and extensive (but undemanding) audience participation to get its sprawling points across.
The piece begins with one half of the directorial and performing duo (David Aula) standing atop a grand piano clothed in full magician’s gear, while his partner (Simon Evans) rattles through a never-ending rendition of London Bridge Is Falling Down on that same instrument. It’s quite a striking tableau and one which immediately lays the groundwork for the madcap and sometimes maddening story that’s about to unfold.
If the pair are to be believed, a certain illusionist named Hugo Cedar performed the greatest trick in the history of conjuring back in 1932, when he magicked himself into thin air on top of a since-relocated version of London Bridge. Both actors are the very definition of unreliable narrators and cajole many an audience member into being one as well; verbatim responses are elicited from the crowd on demand, only for one or both of the actors to feign surprise when the poor sucker duly complies. It’s a trick that’s repeated several times but which thankfully never loses its comedic impact, while also serving to augment the feeling of ambiguity and untrustworthiness that surrounds the show.
These uncertain waters are further muddied by the mentioning of set-ups and stooges, as well as the revealing of how some tricks work but not others. As for the magic itself, the tricks never venture into grand proportions but all sleight-of-hand and misdirection is pulled off with verve and ability. There’s no time to try and work out how the trick was done, however; instead, the storyline pulls us into yet another existential and metaphysical quagmire, making us question pretty much every aspect of the show itself.
The frenetic pace set by the first half of the show unfortunately can’t maintained for its duration, and the narrative veers into fairly bleak territory at its climax. However, with Evans and Aula as our escorts into this bizarre study in knowledge and belief, it’s impossible to know if anything that has transpired on stage is really true. More of a head-scratcher than a jaw-dropper, The Vanishing Man leaves its audience with more questions than answers, but a feeling of uncertainty that’s pleasant rather than perturbing.