Confessions Of A Psychic / Sceptic / Sharon Neill: Second Sight /
Marc Salem's Out Of His Mind / An Audience With Paul Daniels /
Corpus / A Millennium Prayer / Crowley
Various venues, Edinburgh
August, 2003

Edinburgh is allegedly the most haunted city in the world, but its discorporate denizens don't get much out of the Fringe. Away from the usual night-time walking tours through the bowels of the Old Town, carny razzle-dazzle and downright debunking are the principal orders of the day.

Peter Lennon's Confessions Of A Psychic (*** C venue) is anything but; it's a cleverly scripted piece performed by this university reader in parapsychology to demonstrate how many paranormal effects can be achieved with stage-magic techniques. Lennon isn't a natural showman and doesn't want to "sell" his feats to us in that way, but he could still do with a little more pizzazz. Nevertheless, for those who keep their eyes peeled, there's a lot of discreet humour in his show.

Which is more than can be said for Lawrence Leung's Sceptic (** Gilded Balloon Teviot), even though Leung's show, unlike Lennon's, is listed under "Comedy" in the Fringe programme. He pulls off a couple of prediction stunts, but mostly this young Australian devotes himself to lengthy, categorical declarations of why it's all bunkum, interspersed with gags that are so desperately attention-seeking that they get more laughs from the performer than from the audience.

Both Lennon and Leung, however, explain the technique of "cold reading" used by soi-disant mind-readers and psychics to pick up cues from the people they're talking to. Armed with such knowledge, one finds blind Belfast psychic Sharon Neill much less impressive in her show Second Sight (** The Pod). Blindness hasn't handicapped Neill from being an expert reader of the intonations of "yes"/"no" answers and even of pauses before the answers; several times during the hour-long session I attended, she diametrically reversed her messages with scarcely any hesitation. Having been involved in the Spiritualist Church in my twenties, I can confidently say that I have seen a number of more impressive mediums than Neill.

The last shreds of my belief in that direction were more or less blown away on seeing a show by American mentalist Marc Salem last year. (Imagine that for a press clipping: "'Destroyed my religious belief' Financial Times"!) This year, in Marc Salem's Out Of His Mind (*** Assembly Rooms), he opts for a chat-show format, in which Fringe-celeb guests help him in his feats. This structure makes it a little more difficult for him to patter directly to the audience, leaving us colder and harder for him to work on. However, his skills remain as astounding as ever. Salem states candidly that there's nothing at all spooky about what he does: it's all a matter of keen observation and "known if not necessarily fully understood psychological techniques" such as Neurolinguistic Programming. Nevertheless, the climax of the hour remains jaw-dropping, as a securely blindfolded Salem identifies a selection of objects handed in by the audience and also seems to pluck memories from our heads much more specific than anything Sharon Neill could offer.

An Audience With Paul Daniels (*** St Cut's) combines the sublime and the indigestible. The Yorkshire-born magician may hold himself in at least as high regard as any member of his audience, but he is a master of both card-based magic and the accompanying comic patter. The "audience with" format allows him to sound off on some of his favourite verbal riffs (when we don't bring up David Blaine, he does), and some of his gags are deeply reactionary (gay people aren't actually funny per se, Paul), but he still has his magical mojo.

Vaguely supernatural elements occur in theatrical offerings such as Corpus (*** C venue) and A Millennium Prayer (*** Pleasance). The former blends The Rocky Horror Show, Carry On Screaming and Prof. Gunther von Hagens in a musical about a diabolical scientist and his collection of plastinated corpses who retain their souls and un-live on, flayed and rigid. The campery is clever, and the songs hit the pop-musical target, but what the show really needs is the one thing its subject matter simply can't provide in any remotely palatable way: sex. Without that electricity, it's so much, er, dead meat. In A Millennium Prayer, Dominic Coleman has created a solo parody of earnest performance-art, as an angel-poet travelling through Modern Britain (you can just hear the capitals) on New Year's Eve 1999. As a single concept driving an entire 50-minute show, it's over-extended, but Coleman's performance is so verbally and physically precise that the laughs keep coming.

For the really sinister and eerie, descend into the vaults of the Aurora Nova venue at St Stephen's for Crowley (***), an expressionistic piece staged in almost complete darkness giving the flavour of the mystic and iconoclast who once tried to change his name by deed poll to The Great Beast 666. The Periplum Tree company drive their reputation for imaginative staging to new heights. The pedant in me also rejoiced that the pronunciation of Aleister Crowley's surname is explicitly dealt with: as with Bowie and Rowling, the O is long. Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law, but get his name right.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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