Review: The Mysterious Gentleman
Image: Partners in Mischief; Off the Cliff Theatre
Andrew Thorn as John Nevil Maskelyne
Dave Short as George Cooke
Josh Harper as Nevil Maskelyne
The Mysterious Gentleman is a play incorporating stage magic that explores the eternal question of what lies beyond death, told through the life story of mercurial magician JN Maskelyne.
The play brings back to the stage this man of contradictions, and 100 years after his death his story is story is still mesmerising.
Known as the father of modern magic in the Victorian era, he built his career by challenging fraudulent spiritualists and charlatans, as well as creating magical illusions that amazed Victorian audiences and still astonish people today.
A co-production between writer Jarek Adams of Partners in Mischief Productions & director Kasia Rózycki of Off The Cliff Theatre.
This is another of those shows which fetch-up around the Halloween period - in fact this one kicked-off its run at the Courtyard on Halloween itself.
It's not hard to see why given a piece which blends magic and drama, is liberally sprinkled with the flavour of spiritualism, and set in the often-exploited period for horror movies - the Victorian era.
That kind of concoction can prove intriguing and satisfying, but the initial appeal of this show and the interest roused in the first half, rather dissipates in the second half as magic gives way to drama.
Photo: John Nevil Maskelyne
The story focuses on stage magician, John Nevil Maskelyne (1839 - 1917) who, apart from inventing many well-known magic tricks and illusions that are still used today, also invented the door lock for pay toilets and many other Victorian gadgets to boot.
Maskelyne became interested in magic after watching a performance from spiritualists the Davenport brothers.
With the aid of his friend, cabinet maker George Alfred Cooke, Maskelyne revealed the trickery of the spiritualists.
And this is where The Mysterious Gentleman starts its story.
From these beginnings, the pair of spiritualist debunkers decided to turn professional magicians and illusionists, touring their magic show and expanding their programme and reputation.
The pair eventually secured a theatre in Piccadilly, London, the Egyptian Hall.
The cast of The Mysterious Gentleman - Photo: (c) James Hall
The format for this production is that, as the story of these two magicians is revealed, we find ourselves treated to various tricks along the way.
Obviously, as is almost compulsory in these cases, I'm not going to spill the beans on just what the tricks are.
However, I can say that they are clever and surprising, even if some of them are rather well-worn these days.
That, though, is part of the historical aspect of this show - in effect, we're being taken back in time to see tricks that these magicians actually performed.
And this is a story that is worth telling because Maskelyne was an inventive man, celebrated in his time, and someone whose work and talent deserves to be remembered.
But even though I had advance notice of what was on offer, there were times during the first half of the show when I wasn't actually sure just what was going on or where the story was headed - and, indeed, whether it was story or simply a device to introduce the tricks.
Partly that's because the dialogue is rattled-off at quite a fast pace with scene and time changes flowing into each other, broken only at times with some repetitive sound interludes.
Though the story is set in the Victorian era, some of the dialogue sounds too formal, unnatural and rather contrived for a modern audience.
And the presence of a mysterious man in black is also puzzling, intrusive and unsettling, even if this 'Mysterious gentlemen' is explored later on.
The first half of the show whets our appetites for magic and illusion, raising expectations that more - perhaps even more spectacular - is to follow.
But the second half sees rather hollow, uninspiring drama taking over from magical illusion, and the promise of an arresting grand finale evaporates, leaving us duped with a lacklustre ending.
Links and related content
ActDrop listing for The Courtyard
Our show listing for The Mysterious Gentleman
Read our reviews' policy