Returning to the Fringe with an all-new show, following a successful debut last year, Strangers presents an intriguing and rewarding blend of magic and theatre. There are conjuring tricks, but this isn't a conjuring show; instead, it's a series of four short plays, where the magic is worked into the storyline in support of high-quality acting. Each of the pieces stands more or less alone, and each has an interestingly different angle on this central concept.
The first segment is the most overtly comic, seeing a homeless man (played by Arthur Mckechnie) encounter both a mysterious voice and an enchanted metal ball. The piece starts slowly, but grows impressive over time, as Mckechnie imbues the ball with a mischievous character and successfully creates the illusion that it's levitating and moving on its own. It's good to see them experiment with different styles, but the combination of a silent performer and an unseen voice-over didn't quite work for me; particularly as this is the opening scene, it put a little too much of a barrier between me and the character on stage.
There are no such concerns, though, with the second segment, which introduces us to Natalie Henderson as a once-high-rolling but now-destitute gambler. Henderson is a convincing actor as well as a capable magician, and the picture she paints will be familiar to most of us – the feeling of having a skill which you rely on suddenly and incomprehensibly desert you. Of all the pieces, this is the one which most ties the magic into the plot, with a particularly clever visualisation of how casinos can make your money disappear. I'm genuinely not sure if it went a bit wrong on the day I attended: if it did, then it was well recovered, but if it didn't then the character's broken hesitancy is a little over-done.
The third vignette is the most unexpected and creative, drawing a subtle parallel between Derren-Brown-style psychological trickery and the manipulative machinations of politicians of every hue. Casting us, the audience, as the crowd at a rally, Lara Bellis successfully plays with our minds to make a thoughtful and complex point about the importance of standing up for what you believe in. I wish there'd been time to explore the implications more deeply, and there could even be a whole show in this concept. As it stands, though, it lost me in the closing moments, when it steps back from the clever allusion and reverts to straightforward tubthumping.
Last on stage is Joe Strickland, tying the disconnected scenes together through a likeable character who's having a bad day. The premise is entertaining, and this piece takes us on a genuine emotional journey, starting jolly and turning quite dark – but closing with just a hint of hope. There are no surprises to the trick which ends this one, but it's still a rewarding way to round off the show.
Unfortunately, a couple of the routines do suffer from the layout of the performance space: with unraked seating, and little in the way of a raised stage, anything done below waist height is invisible to much of the audience. While it's harsh to blame a production for the deficiencies of the venue, it is fair to say that Fringe shows need to be robust enough to cope with less-than-perfect sightlines, which in this case might be as simple as standing up and performing at a higher table.
I missed some of the subtle character development which defined the original Strangers, but this second outing proves that the combination of magic and theatre still has plenty of gold to mine. I'm already marking my calendar for Strangers III next year.