Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Showman is pushing at the edges of happiness

HE recently returned to our TV screens with a show investigating the power of “social compliance” — in which he persuaded an unwitting member of the public into believing that they had pushed someone to their death

HE recently returned to our TV screens with a show investigating the power of “social compliance” — in which he persuaded an unwitting member of the public into believing that they had pushed someone to their death, writes Matthew Wilson.

A one-off special on Channel 4, Pushed to the Edge saw Derren Brown attract his usual mixture of acclaim, opprobrium and media-generated controversy.

Something of a Marmite showman, people tend to either love or loathe Brown’s trademark brand of psychological illusion — with enough in the former camp to ensure that his theatre shows regularly play to packed houses.

Now, hot on the heels of a sold-out season in the West End, he is returning to the Wycombe Swan with his most provocative show yet — Derren Brown: Miracle.

This is billed as an evening of mind-altering genius as extraordinary events unfold live on stage.

But despite his hectic schedule, it seems Brown can’t wait to hit the road and tour the UK.

“I’m only getting a three-week break after the West End — just enough to catch my breath and maybe get away for a bit. It’s an enormously enjoyable show to do, and I’ve never toured straight after the West End before, which I think will be fun as it’s in such good shape. I can’t wait to get started.”

Not that it’s all been plain sailing, it would seem.

“I had no idea if the second half would work at all when we started. In theory, my audiences are totally the wrong audiences to get to the place I need to get them to.

“As there’s no way of testing how an audience will respond without having an audience, I just had to get up there and do it on the first night and see how it went.

“It went very well, which was a huge relief. It still needed a lot of work, and after a week or two of shifting and polishing things, the show felt right.

“Since then we’ve continued to work on it and now it feels terrific — a very long way from its opening week in Dartford last year.

“It’s a bold and ‘ballsy’ second half, as all my favourite things are. Once I realised it was going to work well — as it could have failed flat on its face — it’s been a joy to work on theatrically and get to a great place.”

Miracle is Brown’s seventh live show, following on from Olivier-award-winning predecessors Something Wicked This Way Comes (2006) and Svengali (2012). What would he say separates this show from previous tours?

“Without getting too much into the content, this is the first show that is about things I find important. Others have had autobiographical bits in them, some more authentic than others, but this one is about things I find important. It has a philosophical underpinning I really care about. It’s ultimately, I suppose, about what makes us happier.”

And speaking of happiness, it’s surely no coincidence that Brown — a popular author on top of everything else — has a book on the subject coming out later this year.

“I’m hoping so, yes. I’m editing it now and trying to get it down from 800 pages to something more manageable. I’ll miss writing it though — nothing compares to spending a stolen afternoon assembling your thoughts and finding the best language for them. It’s very edifying, and I feel I am at my best when I write. Once the book is on the shelf I move on and forget about it: I can’t ever read it in case I find errors or places where my thoughts have changed.”

Given the controversy it generated, what did he make of various reactions to Pushed to the Edge?

“I haven’t seen them! People I’ve spoken to seem to think it’s one of the best things I’ve done, which is lovely to hear. But I switch off from any media (or social media) response after TV shows go out.

“It’s a show that makes you feel uncomfortable, which of course means that some quarters will peddle their peculiar brand of outrage. I suppose that’s a sign that it’s worked. More than that I keep away from, and am happy to not know what the reactions are. If I like it, and the participants have got something out of it, then I’m happy.”

One thing that Brown’s many fans should perhaps bear in mind about Miracle is that it will be his last tour for a while...

“Yes it is. It’s been 14 years of touring, and that’s with writing a new show every two years. I may do something overseas for a change, but nothing major here in 2017.

“After that, I’m not sure. I love touring so I don’t imagine I’m stopping for good quite yet. But a break would be lovely — not so much from the touring itself, but from the creation of new shows. It’s a lot of work getting them up to speed.”

It does sound like rather a hectic whirl. Is there anything he will miss most about life on the road?

“I enjoy the ease of having group of friends,” he says. “It’s something I’ve never had socially. I choose my team based more than anything on how delightful they are to spend time with.

“Having a drink and a chat after the show as we all wind down is just wonderful. I like the change from week to week. One city feels like home, like you’ve been there forever, and then you’re off and it all starts again. That’s fun — I like changes of scene. And Sunday roasts as we travel from one city to another.

“Then there’s ‘day-off socks’: we have to wear black socks for the show so we go wild on Sundays and try to outdo each other with the wildest socks we can find. We’re pretty rock’n’roll like that. I think the Stones did the same in the Seventies.”

Successful musicians are known for touring all over the world, and Brown is now thinking of taking his act across the pond and making his Broadway debut.

“I’ve only ever wanted to do what’s enjoyable, and a couple of months — or whatever it will be — in New York, performing for people who don’t really know me, sounds like huge fun.

“So no plans to ‘conquer the US’ or move abroad, just a nice thing to have the opportunity to do. We’re in talks with theatres now, and the plan is to put together a show for a first-time audience.

“It’s different here now: people know me, and bring certain expectations, which deeply affects the material of the show. It’ll be interesting seeing what to put together for people who don’t arrive highly suggestible.”

Derren Brown: Miracle is rated not suitable for children under 12 years. The show is at the Wycombe Swan from Monday, February 29, to Saturday, March 5.

For more information or to book, call the box office on 01494 512000 or visit www.wycombeswan.co.uk

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