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Review of The Psychic Project at the Vaults Theatre

The Psychic ProjectIf you want to hear the word ‘amazing’ over-used to such an extent that it’s lost all meaning then this is the show for you. David Narayan’s ‘mind-reading’ show professes to cover the true story of the CIA’s psychic spy research from the Cold War ‘whilst the audience attempts some of the actual paranormal espionage experiments’. But what you get is a mid-market end-of-the-pier mentalist giving a Powerpoint presentation interspersed with a few basic magic tricks.

David Narayan reminded me of the BBC’s Evan Davis in that his diction was clear, his personality is amiable and he moved with a wiry energy. Perhaps that broadcast journalist came to mind also because Narayan couldn’t quite decide if he was reporting news with just a dash of energetic skepticism or trying to seduce his audience into believing they really do have psychic powers (which is the necessary starting point for such show to work if it’s going to work at all). In any event, the indecisive nature of Narayan’s efforts meant he failed to command rapport with his audience which is fatal for a show that is nothing but interactive. By the second act, he’d lost them completely and more than a few audience members voted with their feet.

Upon arrival, the set in the sizable Vault’s auditorium (about 100 seats on a steep rake) looked promising. Its retro televisions and stacks of musty research had a kind of sinister command-centre vibe that reminded me of Jamie Lloyd’s 2013 Trafalgar Studios production of Harold Pinter’s Hothouse. However, even when the lights came on, many audience members were blinded by a badly focused stage light. If the intended effect was to disorient like a classic third-degree interrogation scene, it failed to provide any sensation other than annoyance.

With a promising pitch reminiscent of the absurd and true tale recounted so vividly by Jon Ronson in his 2004 book The Men Who Stare at Goats, I expected this show to be funny and knowing. Sadly, it is not. The one topical gag that might make this true comes too late as the audience had mostly disengaged by the time it arrived. Narayan is a pleasant enough and hard-working fellow but he demonstrated minimal showmanship and even less wit, which, for a single-entertainer vehicle, is naturally problematic. If the prime mover of this show were a droll and sardonic comedian or a high energy (perhaps high camp) card, maybe the premise could deliver essential entertainment value. I could see Rob Newman, Jo Brand or Julian Clary taking the audience places around the same theme in their own ways. But Narayan has only one gear: breathless would-be Ted-x speaker. He also isn’t confident enough to let any jeopardy creep into his show (except his own for a brief moment in the finale by which time the audience was largely un-invested). Displaying his lack of command, Narayan repeatedly gave hollow warnings of what to do ‘should anyone feel uncomfortable’. What is the point if there is no discomfort?

Could Narayan re-cast his own magic show and take a step back as a producer to deliver more ‘how-can-that-be-true’ stories with experiences to match? The very idea of getting the audience to toy with these experiments is interesting but as he’s condemned the psychic spy efforts as risibly simplistic from the beginning, what’s the point of trying them? He can’t bring the Living TV paranormal fanbase with him because he’s too dismissive and he can’t bring readers of Jon Ronson with him because he’s too Butlins Red-coat. If he’d presented himself as a reluctant convert and could successfully take the audience on the same journey – offering runs and rises of tension and then releasing it with comic aplomb – the concept might deliver. But that’s a bigger ask than my psychic energy is prepared to contemplate. This show is a misfire.

2 gold stars

Review by Mary Beer

The Psychic Project is a mind-reading show based on the true story of America’s psychic spying programme from the Cold War. It tells the story of the programme and attempts the CIA’s experiments, seeing if the audience can achieve the same results; i.e. whether the audience can become psychic spies.

The show is unusual in that the performer, David Narayan, does not demonstrate any psychic powers. Instead, every experiment is attempted by audience members, using the techniques from the CIA’s archives. After sold out shows in 2017 and 2018, The Psychic Project comes to The Vaults Theatre for eight performances.

The Psychic Project
Writer/Performer David Narayan
June 12th 2019 – June 22nd 2019
Wednesday – Saturday, 7.30pm
The Vaults Theatre, Launcelot Street, London SE1 7AD


  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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2 thoughts on “Review of The Psychic Project at the Vaults Theatre”

  1. Yes I completely agree with the above review. I was hoping to be at least impressed by the psychic acts but l remained sceptical throughout. If these were copies of real experiments l wasn’t fooled. I spent the whole show trying to figure out how to do the tricks instead of being impressed. My husband had actually seen one performed before and figured it out. However it was still enjoyable but I kept hoping to get called to the stage to prove him wrong. I must not have looked gullible enough. If you want a chance on stage put your hand up after he asks if you chose the same symbol as is on the card at the start.

  2. I went to the show tonight and thoroughly enjoyed it. David’s enthusiasm, unassuming demeanour and awkward comic timing were a wonderful mix! It was a really engaging, fun night! Would recommend.

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