REVIEW: Derren Brown Underground, New Alex Theatre

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Illusionist, hypnotist, magician and overall mind-blowing mentalist Derren Brown kicks off his Underground tour with a standing ovation-worthy performance at the New Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham.

It’s almost impossible to write a review of a Derren Brown experience without giving away any secrets or surprises. So much of the British mentalist’s act relies on his ability to shock and delight us with his ability to seemingly read minds, predict the future, or put people into a trance — but we’ll avoid mentions of the specifics here and instead focus on Brown’s chops as an entertainer.

He has the presence and dramatic flair of an old-time magician, striding confidently on-stage in a tuxedo and gesticulating as he speaks with long, tapering fingers. But if you know anything about Derren Brown, you’ll know that this is no ordinary magic show. Brown has made his living by subverting our expectations of the “is this your card?” variety of illusion, and Underground is no different.

The production itself, starting its UK tour in Birmingham, forms a sort of “greatest hits”, borrowing elements from previous tours and television shows from Brown’s career and refashioning them in new ways. Brown has always maintained that he has no supernatural abilities whatsoever, and he reaffirms this throughout his performance; this is all just cold-reading, he says, or suggestibility, or a memory technique. Every single moment in the show can be easily explained by psychology, but of course you forget that in the moment as your jaw is hitting the floor.

What might not be expected from a two hour stage show about hypnosis and mind control is that it’s also very funny. Brown injects his various stunts with self-deprecating humour and recurring jokes and callbacks, and these laughs that are never at the expense of the audience; everybody is in on the joke, even if they have no idea what else is going on.

And maybe that’s partially the secret to Derren Brown’s success over the last fifteen years; in addition to his mind-boggling psychological talents, he is a gifted storyteller. He engages the audience with such warmth and wit that you can’t help but feel you’re in safe hands — you trust Brown to take you on a wild ride into the unknown, and then deliver you back safely.