Paul Kieve: The real-life Jonathan Creek

 In Articles about Paul Kieve

Article about Paul Kieve by Jasper Rees in the Daily Telegraph, 14 Jun 2011 to tie in with the opening of Ghost The Musical in London. Full version here.

The staged movie is now part of the cultural furniture. Some morph into musicals, some become plays, and a few, such as Brief Encounter and The 39 Steps cleverly stake out their own territory. But some films surely remain unstageable. And you’d think that one of those would be Ghost.

You remember Ghost. Patrick Swayze, as a murder victim who talks to his widowed wife, Demi Moore, through a medium played by Whoopi Goldberg, would walk through a door as soon as look at it. His hand passed through objects he couldn’t pick up. He could shove a coin invisibly up a vertical surface. How do you do that on stage? The answer is you call Paul Kieve. And Matthew Warchus, the director of Ghost: The Musical, made sure he called him early.

“I don’t think I’m giving too much away,” Kieve says, “to say that the whole set has been designed around these optical effects which are extraordinarily difficult to achieve. In theatre you would normally never say that in order to make this guy vanish in a way that’s never been seen before in a show, we’ve got to do everything else backwards from it. How long’s that effect going to last? Two seconds.”

But that is what has happened. Ghost, adapted by Bruce Joel Rubin from his own screenplay and featuring songs by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard, has had a long trial run at the Manchester Opera House. It enters the West End fully tweaked so that, whatever audiences make of the rest of the show, the visual trickery will take their breath away. It’s also Kieve’s job to make sure it doesn’t run away with every scene. “In theatre you have to be aware that people are seeing it live,” he says. “In film you know it’s an effect and you don’t even think about it. You do exactly those same things on stage and people at best are astonished, at worst totally jolted out of the story. It’s working out when things have an emotional impact.”

Not every illusionist thinks so collegiately. But if such a thing as a conventional illusionist’s career exists, Kieve has not had one. Growing up in Essex, he was obsessed with tricks. “You learn quite a simple thing that suddenly impresses adults. You get approval and it gives you a bit of power.” His most manipulative sleight of hand was to get his father to take him to a magic shop in the heart of London. “I found this trick where if I said I wanted to go to the British Museum he was delighted that I wanted to be educated and then afterwards I’d say, ‘Oh can we just go to the magic shop opposite?’ And I’d spend three hours in the magic shop.”

He got his first break at 16 when he was hired to do a card trick on Sade’s debut video for Your Love is King. To pass his forearms off as Sade’s he shaved them and wore gloves, and got an invitation on to Blue Peter. Soon his dramatic magic act was opening in Jersey as a support act for everyone from Bernard Manning to Gloria Gaynor. Then, at 19, he lost an assistant and, rather than train a new one up, decided to form a double act called the Zodiac Brothers. It lasted for four years.

“We got on to New Faces. We did a lot of work on cruise ships. I remember thinking it was a dream to work in Vegas and when I actually met [the Vegas institution] Siegfried and Roy I realised this was a bit of a nightmare. Siegfried was bored out of his brains. They were on a $50 million a year contract and I remember thinking I wouldn’t want to do that, no matter how much someone paid me.”

The split was acrimonious – “like going through a divorce but the children were the act”. Kieve conceived a plan to escape to university, and had even applied when he got a call from Theatre Royal Stratford East. “They said, ‘We’re doing a production of The Invisible Man and we need some help.’ ” That was in 1991, and he was still in his early twenties. In 1995 he began his long association with the director Matthew Warchus, first on Volpone at the National and then in West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Peter Pan. Warchus, designer Rob Howell and Kieve, all three dark-haired men in their forties, have since collaborated often, most challengingly on Lord of the Rings. Whatever the reception for the show, it did contain one remarkable illusion in which Bilbo Baggins vanished before the audience’s eyes.

“I was very proud of doing something that hadn’t been done before. I did have the benefit of it being very early on in the show when you can do something that requires a half-hour preset and incredible precision in terms of where things are placed. I remember Derren Brown came to see it and he was totally fooled by it.”

We meet in Kieve’s elegant sitting room in Hackney, the shelves of a tall cabinet groaning with books about magic. One of those volumes is by Kieve himself. Although he became an all-but-invisible man when he joined the theatre, he wrote a history of magic in 1997 which took him out on the book festival circuit. “I felt, I’m an author now, I can just go out and talk about the history of magic. And of course magic is a wonderful gift for a live thing. Promoting the book became a show in its own right.”

But mostly he is in hiding. Other invisible gigs include being the only actual magician ever to work on the set of a Harry Potter film, and a contribution to Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming Hugo Cabret. Now you see him, now you don’t. Twenty years on, he remains ambivalent about subordinating his gift to a larger creative design.

“It suddenly struck me on Ghost that all of a choreographer’s energy is put into what’s on show, and about 95 per cent of my energy is concealment. That can be really frustrating, when you’re watching someone who’s totally free to just change that and that. If I want to change something I might have to have someone in a workshop build something for a month. It drives me nuts.”

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