Derren Brown Unbelievable review and star rating: ★★★
Derren Brown may have one of the most quietly sustaining careers in showbiz. It’s been 23 years since he first popped up on TV, during a noughties era that famously saw him shoot himself in the head in a live game of Russian roulette and correctly predict the lottery numbers. Last year, his new show, Showman, garnered five-star reviews for the way it moulded magic with mental health, with tricks that questioned the way we live our lives and the choices we make.
In his new show, Unbelievable, a co-production with The Mercury Theatre Colchester, his opening gambit is a thought-provoking line about how everything we do is a magic trick. It’s a message about how we edit and filter ourselves, how, like with a trick, we present one version of reality.
There is fuel yet in Brown’s vehicle of trickery with purpose, using magic to help us make sense of the way we live our lives, even if Unbelievable feels underpowered in context of the 52-year-old’s oeuvre.
The most obvious reason is that he’s not in it. For the first time Brown directs but doesn’t go on stage, despite lending his name to the show. It’s a neat concept: seven actors who aren’t magicians do magic tricks, combining mind reading gags – the usual getting audience members up from the crowd shtick – with musical interludes, shimmering stage changes, and a proper brass band.
Musical theatre and magic are natural bedfellows and I’d like to see the idea of a full theatrical experience with singing and dancing and magic developed further. There is a mind reading pianist who guesses songs from audience members (I went up on stage so can vouch she wasn’t exclusively choosing planted people from the audience), a bit where hypnotised ticket holders become convinced water was wine, and tricks that made people disappear and reappear from spooky-looking cupboards.
The problem is that Unbelievable rarely feels particularly special or surprising. Brown has a couple of good ideas that I’d love to see in a show with more teeth, bigger stunts and, most importantly, an appearance by the man himself.