Still got the old magic

 In Articles about Paul Kieve

This article by Ian Johns about Paul Kieve appeared in The Times, August 10, 2004.

Illusionist Paul Kieve’s latest show adopts Victorian values. Our critic stares back in wonder

“THEY DO IT so fast, they would have fooled Houdini.” It’s typical of the love for his craft that the illusionist Paul Kieve is enthusing about other performers, the Pendragons. He’s just back from America where, as the magic consultant for the Guinness Book of Records, he saw them perform the fastest version of Houdini’s Metamorphosis trick.

Charlotte Pendragon stands on a trunk that has her husband Jonathan locked inside. She conceals herself behind a curtain which then drops to reveal her husband. She is already in the trunk. The switch has taken place in the blink of an eye.

The couple now join such Guinness record-holders as Doug Henning (highest viewing figures for a TV show), David Copperfield (largest illusion ever staged), Siegfried and Roy (most expensive magic show) and Penn and Teller (most living creatures produced during a magic performance — 80,000 bees).

Not that the 36-year-old Kieve, from East London, is left out. As British theatre’s magic consultant of choice he not only made the hero of the Madness musical Our House appear in two places at once, but also devised its record number of 29 rapid costume changes for a single performer. He has also turned boys into mice for Roald Dahl’s
The Witches, made carpets fly for Scottish Ballet, transformed Simon Russell Beale’s Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde for the RSC and created the ghosts for the Leslie Bricusse musical Scrooge. He even made Mary instantly pregnant for The Nativity at the Young Vic.

“It’s never as complicated as nuclear physics. The art of magic is to conceal the trick,” says Kieve, who also taught Harry Potter camera-free trickery for The Prisoner of Azkaban. “It’s like any effect in the theatre, it’s more about presentation and timing. Put the elements together correctly and you can create a sense of astonishment.”

That’s what he’s done for Carnesky’s Ghost Train, a touring blend of fairground attraction and conceptual art, devised by the performance artist Marisa Carnesky, that has arrived in London.

Powdered ladies waft silently in and out of our vision as we rattle round on a winding track. They reach plaintively out of broken windows, sink into a floor or spin in mid-air. A woman paces a revolving hotel corridor. A gypsy dancer releases a flock of digital doves. A twisted, rose-decked railway line springs into view and the ghostly showgirls line up, then vanish. The 12-minute ride is over.

Without prior knowledge, you might not fully grasp Carnesky’s stated aim to evoke the sense of dispossession felt by migrant women. What is clear is that Kieve, with the digital wizard Jonathan Allen and the lighting designer Nigel Edwards, have conjured out of Carnesky’s imagination an enjoyably surreal burlesque set in an otherworldly

For Kieve this has been an opportunity to delve into the vast library of magic books in his Hackney home and to adapt old tricks, some not seen for 80 years: “Many Victorian illusions were originally designed as fairground sideshows and took place in small rooms. They aren’t suitable for a theatre but with the ghost train the sight lines are narrower.”

Although he insists that Carnesky’s Ghost Train “is not about individual illusions but the total experience”, he’s very pleased to be using a Victorian effect called Amphritite: “It’s a revolving, floating figure. It has a beauty and elegance we seldom see nowadays.”

A box of tricks for his tenth birthday originally fired up Kieve’s imagination. By the age of 15 he was converting cardboard boxes from Sainsbury’s into the zigzag cabinet that makes the occupant’s abdomen shift sideways. Theatre trips with his mother, a former child actress, also instilled a sense of spectacle. It wasn’t Hamlet at the Old Vic but summer holidays and end-of-the-pier shows in Cromer that made the biggest impression.

He left school at 17. After five years in a club and cruise-ship doubleact, the Zodiac Brothers, he landed the job of magic adviser for Ken Hill’s stage version of H. G. Wells’s The Invisible Man in 1991. It’s also in the Guinness Book of Records for having the most magical effects in a single play.

Kieve clearly admires the “golden age” magicians from the 1870s to the 1930s whose innovations included the use of mirrors and plates of glass to make objects vanish or conjure up ghostly images. He quotes the remark that “Houdini spawned a whole generation of magicians who didn’t believe in magic”. His own attitude is equally practical; “the black art” to him means using very little light.

“The fact that we’re using digital effects and illusions dating back to the 1860s for Marisa’s ghost train is highly appropriate. Magicians such as Georges Méliès saw the early potential of film. The great David Devant was one of the first to bring motion pictures to British audiences. Cinema and magic grew up together. Now we’ve reunited them.”

The past 30 years, Kieve thinks, have seen magic become more trivial, but he takes heart from such performers as David Blaine and David Copperfield: “Blaine is trying to bring a scarier feel but only works on TV. Copperfield still pushes for that sense of wonder in a live act. His latest Vegas show transports audience members to anywhere they want in the world and then returns them to the theatre.

Of course it’s preposterous, but he’s maintaining the idea of the magician as the purveyor of the impossible.”

Kieve obviously shares that desire to provoke wonder. His next projects include a Scrooge in Chicago with Richard Chamberlain, a Holiday on Ice and a magic guide for children. And there will be more Guinness moments: “Magicians are such show-offs. They always want to break a record.”

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