The 1980s boom in alternative and often extreme forms of circus brought in its wake a burgeoning of new-style magic and "geek" acts, of which Penn and Teller are both the most mainstream and the most intelligent. Their London run (already extended from one week to two) partially revisits tricks already seen on their television appearances, but their style is such that even in a large theatre such as Sadler's Wells and even when performing close-up work before a single witness, the stage experience is more impressive.
Basically, their shtick is simple: Penn Jillette, the big, loud one, mouths off at great length while the diminutive Teller (even his official documents carry no first name) mutely gets on with most of the impressive stuff. As with most magic acts, the secret is in the spiel, and Penn is a master. With a little apparatus (a giant dartboard, a demijohn bottle suspended in full view of the audience) and a lot of wordpower he can drag the straightforward trick of predicting a verse chosen at random from the Bible out to 25 minutes, and never let it drag; he even slips in throwaway gags about old-time comedy acts and David Byrne and moves on too quickly to let the laugh come. This patter is a world away from the blunderbuss psychosis of Jim Rose or the full-throated obscenity of The Amazing Johnathan.
Furthermore, and much more impressively, Penn and Teller (even when using sign-language) consistently pull off the difficult trick of getting comic mileage out of audience assistants without humiliating them. This is most evident when dealing with children, to whom Penn seems to come across as a bearish uncle-figure who is appealing precisely because he does not patronise them. Their insults are friendly rather than raucous: the biggest boo of the evening comes not when Teller appears to have thrown a cuddly bunny into an industrial wood-chipping machine, but when Penn derides the prowess of Brits at darts.
Their unique selling point, however, is that they explain the business of trickery to us, completely and honestly rather than as a smokescreen in order to seem to trump themselves by going one step beyond their explanations. A simple cigarette routine from Teller is used to detail the seven principles of sleight-of-hand – palming, stealing, distracting etc. – and the final, deliberately unspectacular item is both a homage to old-fashioned carnival fire-eaters and a lesson in how the act really works: no trickery, no special coatings, just reliance on air supply and saliva in the mouth.
Penn and Teller have pitched their tent at the junction of showbiz magic, supposedly postmodern cleverness and good old carny values, and have made the territory their own. They are the perfect hip magic act for a contemporary audience. Oh, and Teller even speaks as many as six words in two hours.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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