This well-conceived, well-executed magic show packs in some impressively impossible illusions, but is most defined by its consistent and intriguing theme. The intimate space at C Nova brings you right up close to the action; the stage is dressed with clocks, steampunk-inspired technology, and an excitingly glowing transparent bowl. Our host for the night is John Henry Blackwood, a self-defined “gentleman magician” from the Victorian age… who’s ridden to the Edinburgh Fringe on board a vintage time machine.
Yes, exactly like Morgan and West. Blackwood can’t possibly be unaware of the long-standing conjuring duo – they’re one of the most visible magic acts at the Edinburgh Fringe – and while they don’t have a copyright on the concept, they do have the time-travelling Victorian gig pretty much covered. A superficial comparison isn’t flattering to Blackwood, whose personal concession to Victoriana goes little further than a pocket-watch and a fusty-looking suit, but when you examine it more closely you realise that the vintage vibe isn’t all that important. What matters is the time-travel shtick – which he cleverly and creatively explores throughout the duration of his act.
And the tricks, of course, matter too. One or two of them are relatively easy to see through, but none is hackneyed or predictable; even a bog-standard disappearing-coin trick gets a fresh and creative makeover. A complex but easy-to-follow routine involving cards and a camera is genuinely befuddling, and includes a clever addendum that turns the original concept on its head. The concluding stunt is dependent on an extended mid-show set-up, but more than justifies itself with a rewarding gimmick and a satisfying final reveal.
Binding together all this excellent material is that consistent theme of time travel, which – far from being a simple storytelling veneer – is integral to the logic of many of the tricks. Blackwood sends messages to his past self, makes contact with the future, and at one point creates what philosophers (or science fiction fans) will recognise as a causal loop. It’s intricate stuff, at times resembling a particularly timey-wimey episode of Doctor Who, but it’s never confusing and is always delivered with confident panache. Only one segment, involving a miniature assistant called Cynthia, doesn’t quite fit the theme – but it’s funny and quirky enough that the digression can be excused.
Some brusque instructions delivered at the door of the theatre make for a slightly intimidating opening, and Blackwood doesn’t feel entirely at ease talking to a crowd – though I must point out that on the day I attended, he was struggling with an obvious illness that might have caused a lesser performer to call off the show. But he’s charm and patience itself when he’s working one-on-one with audience volunteers, and he’s practised enough to smooth over the hiccups that inevitably occur when members of the public get up on stage. By the end of the hour, he’d won me over, not just as an engaging performer but as a thoroughly likeable-seeming man.
Magic at the Fringe can often fall into tired old patterns: the same tricks, the same patter, the same results. For all his apparent similarity to another act, Blackwood’s done something genuinely different here, investing a lot of thought and considerable set-building time in his richly-created illusions. I might even go again, just to see if I can figure out how one or two of them are done. For fans of stage magic, then, this one’s a must-see.