As its subtitle suggests, Strangers: A Magic Play combines two genres, using the techniques of stage magic to enhance and embellish a series of theatrical monologues. The idea isn’t brand new – Bullet Catch springs to mind – but the technique still counts as experimental, and each of Strangers’ four unrelated monologues takes a different approach to the fusion. The results are compelling, but perhaps not for the reason you’d expect: first and foremost, Strangers stands out as a well-delivered piece of conventional theatre.
The two scenes which book-end the show explore the concept to its fullest. First on the stage, Joe Strickland launches straight into a gripping and intriguing monologue, imagining what it’s like to spend your childhood with unwanted psychic powers. The story segues seamlessly into a pair of mind-reading tricks which, while relatively basic, are executed to perfection; the second in particular feels dangerous and dramatic, unquestionably enhanced by the portents planted earlier. Strickland is an excellent actor, and an injection of emotion towards the end of the piece was thoroughly convincing. He could make an hour-long play out of this idea, and I hope that one day he might do.
At the other end of the show, Josh Mallalieu lifts the mood as an unrelentingly enthusiastic kids’ performer, whose act is interrupted by a highly inappropriate phone call. The premise, of a harmless children’s show concealing brutal adult heartbreak, is an effective one – and Mallalieu has the showmanship needed to pull off a slightly frenetic performance style. It’s not played entirely for laughs, though: a startling revelation opens the way for a very dark re-interpretation of a classic routine, which you’re almost sure to have seen at some point during your childhood. He’s ruined that memory for me forever, but I’m more than happy that he did.
The middle part of the hour is given over to two further pieces which, arguably, make less of an attempt to work the magic into the storyline. Carn Truscott plays a put-upon waiter dreaming of hitting the big-time, in a monologue that delivers a nice skit on hipster trends and the life-cycle of a fashionable indie band. There’s a neat twist to the tale and the concluding trick is a clever one, but overall the magic here only illustrates the story, rather than truly forming a part of it.
For me, though, the most memorable piece is the third one, performed by Gary Berezin. While the quality of the acting is excellent across the board, Berezin is the stand-out: he plays a quietly-broken man on the verge of tears, hiding his eyes behind unkempt hair. Poignant and convincing, he delivers an important lesson on the cycle of homelessness, credibly explaining how an intelligent man could slip – with no drugs or alcohol involved – from a place at university to a life on the streets. The magic trick accompanying this one is almost literally an afterthought… and if you don’t immediately spot how it’s done, well, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you.
With writing and acting of this quality, in fact, you might wonder if there’s any need for the magic at all. Until, that is, you think to ask the obvious question: would I have picked this show out of the Fringe programme, without the promise of wonderment to draw me in? If the truth be told, I wouldn’t have done – and that would have been a crying shame. So Strangers isn’t really a magic show; but it’s still triumphant proof of the creative potential of magic and theatre combined.