A muffled and somewhat disembodied voice opens proceedings in Strangers: A Magic Play II, like one of those public address system announcers at a railway station. The Homeless Man (Arthur McKechnie), does what he is told, but the audience does not hear any of his verbal responses. It takes The Political Preacher (Lara Bellis) to draw out why this is – the voices of the down and out go unheard vis-à- vis the opinions of the high and mighty. And then there’s The Gambler (Natalie Henderson), whose rollercoaster personal story has allowed her to know what it is to have no financial worries, and then what it is to have crippling debts.
But it is only after some reflection that a pattern beyond card games and party tricks emerges. My initial response to this play was that it felt like a scratch night, with one performer appearing at a time, doing their set scene, and then waltzing off before the next one starts. The long scenes allow the audience’s minds to concentrate and focus on one thing at a time. There’s a trend in new plays to try to incorporate different narratives by way of having lots of short scenes, such that the whole play is unsettled and ungrounded. This production bucks that trend, and rightly so.
As could be reasonably expected, some magic tricks are more impressive than others. I would have thought that people who have seen a lot of magic shows over the years would find there is nothing new under the sun here. Some lottery tickets somehow transform into winnings in the form of paper banknotes, and there’s excellent ball control early on with what is supposed to be an inanimate object with no free will having a mind of its own. Elsewhere, the amount of time taken to shuffle through packs of cards is too long, and therefore too telling.
The Political Preacher launches straight into a rant, meaning some work is required to establish a later rapport with the audience. She does achieve it, and with some humour thrown in: a fourth-wall breach request to do something (I won’t say what, but it wasn’t anything harmful or sinister) is responded to by this unassuming audience, and then promptly questioned. There’s strength in doing nothing, our preacher asserted, which is what anyone who didn’t join in would have done; the non-participants are likened to Rosa Parks (a seamstress who, in 1955, refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger), passively remaining seated. I wasn’t wholly convinced by the lines of argument presented, but it was an intriguing one nonetheless. The speech as a whole demonstrated how people can become radicalised to whatever it is they are being sucked into.
In the end, though, I much preferred the theatrical technique used by The Gambler, sat in front of a table, telling her story, and incorporating card games accordingly. Sometimes, the ‘hand’ that life deals a person is wonderful, other times it’s rotten. But, The Gambler insists, it is possible to win no matter how bad the cards a person has are, as it’s all about the way the ‘hand’ is played. A slight pity, then, that her story is peppered with a few too many unnecessary profanities. Later, the show’s ending, in which The Homeless Man returns to the stage, is extremely dark. The man has lost all motivation and cannot see an end to his troubles, and I did feel it a pity that he couldn’t magic his way out, as the wizards and witches in the world of Harry Potter might do. But then his situation says something about magic in the big, bad world: it’s all illusions.
As ever with smaller venues, sightlines from anywhere behind the front couple of rows is imperfect, and the odd card trick was missed from my vantage point. Overall, despite the breadth of the play, talking about everything from the civil rights movement to blackjack, the show is a fresh and heartening production. It goes to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe after this preview, but I hope this isn’t the last time London audiences get exposure to what is both literally and figuratively a fine example of the magic of theatre.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Strickland Productions proudly presents
Strangers: A Magic Play II
Written and directed by Joe Strickland
Joe Strickland has always felt stranger than most people. At the age of 15 he realised that almost all magic shows were just sequences of unrelated tricks and wanted to change that, he went on to perform various routines incorporating magic into dramatic narratives. With help from twelve years of experience performing and inventing magic, a string of awards including being a finalist at the Magic Circle’s Young Magician of the Year Competition and an invitation to perform at the International Brotherhood of Magicians’ “Stars of Tomorrow” show, Strangers: A Magic Play II is the culmination of years of work blending magic with theatre, and into the 21st Century. He has done this with a group of actors from the Nottingham New Theatre, none of whom knew magic prior to being cast in the show, and all of whom come together to help us understand how magic affects all of us, and to show that magic itself has the potential to be a much more powerful performance tool than previously.
Having performed last year at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to great success, four brand new scenes have been created for this year’s festival. A homeless person given a magical gift by a mysterious stranger. A gambling addict battling with her addiction. A political preacher giving their first sermon. A shopping channel presenter struggling to care about their job. In the same way that a musical blends theatre with music and lyrics, Strangers: A Magic Play II blends theatre with magic and illusion. Four separate stories are interwoven with magic to create an audience experience which challenges what we think and how we think about magic and performance.