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Review: Penn & Teller at the Hammersmith Apollo

Published 19 July 2010
Our Review Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Most people have seen fire eating, pieces of material cut and magically rejoined and implausible feats of memorisation. All three of these featured during Penn and Teller’s run at the Hammersmith Apollo, which concluded the weekend that just passed. I hadn’t really a clue about what to expect from the duo as the performance day approached. However, if I knew that Teller would be performing a vanishing cigarette trick and holding his breath in an underwater chamber, I wouldn’t have given going to see the duo performing as much thought.

However, it’s not what Penn and Teller do but rather how it’s done. Tricks and illusions are executed seamlessly with rich storytelling, verve and passionate criticism, in addition to scepticism of the magic and supernatural professions. Penn didn’t just walk onto the stage and eat fire. That would be too conventional and boring. Instead, for the concluding trick – Penn paced onto the stage, with the audience in complete darkness – the only light coming from a glowing candle he held. Casually perched on a box on stage, Penn first explained the art of fire eating with some old childhood memories thrown in for good measure. He then eventually went on to fire eat with a twist. But debunking fire eating made his performances no less amazing. If anything, it added to the atmosphere and gave his performance an edge. This was quite a common occurrence throughout the show. Teller’s vanishing cigarette trick also afforded an explanation – which came complete with a commentary on sleight of hand by Penn. (link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_qQX-jayixQ).

We all know that magic is an art that must be learnt – and not an actual supernatural occurrence. Penn and Teller recognise this, and instead of trying to dupe or fool the audience unnecessarily, they focus on the beauty of their illusions, and the choice of props. Would Teller plucking objects out of thin air be quite so graceful if it wasn’t a huge troubling of living goldfish helped into a bowl of water? Probably not. Would swallowing one hundred needles and a ball of thread really be cutting edge magic if when regurgitated, all the needles weren’t threaded on the string? It’s highly doubtful.

It’s very hard to astonish and impress show-goers these days, as performances across all genres have invested in better sets, fancy props and more elaborate stunts. The advent of shocking audiences with dangerous magic on TV doesn’t help live performers either, with digital trickery and the comforts of being physically isolated from the viewers allowing illusionists more time, space and resources to do the impossible.

That said, old dogs can learn new tricks for live shows – or original ones anyway. Teller performed the astonishing Shadows illusion (link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=un1pNtmYguA), which left members of the audience gasping and was given the biggest applause of the evening. They also displayed their comical humour throughout, with one act involving deception of an audience member by Penn and Teller AND the rest of the theatre, making her believe she had actually thrown knifes at Penn.

Going with an open mind to a Penn and Teller show is a good idea, because many elements from their acts are things you have seen before. That said, the seamless execution of their tricks, together with their dark humour, honesty, scepticism of the supernatural , twist on old illusions and chalk-and-cheese pairing are what bring home the bacon. As Bananarama said ‘It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it -and that’s what gets results’.