For better or worse, Tony Roberts sets the tenor of his close-up magic show within a few seconds of appearing on stage. “You can un-cross your arms,” he tells a gentleman on the front row. “There’s no need to hide your nipples.” It’s not quite the approach I’d have taken to reassuring my audience, but he doesn’t have any trouble finding volunteers to join him on the stage – and to occupy the best seats in the house, right beside him at his card table.
Roberts is a self-confessed card mechanic: a man adept at faking shuffles, dealing from the bottom of the deck and, in general, cheating. It’s a skill-set he puts to good use throughout the hour, and his tricks are projected through a video camera onto a big screen at the back of the stage – so the whole audience can try to spot the sneaky move. Truth be told, a few of his techniques are fairly easy to see through, and I never had that wonderful feeling that something apparently impossible had happened before my eyes. Still, there are some pleasing highlights to enjoy; look out in particular for the unexpectedly illustrative poker tutorial.
But physical skill is only half the magician’s task; the other half is showmanship, and it’s here that Roberts’ style borders on the perplexing. He says he’s been a street performer, so presumably he can make a splash when he chooses to, but in this stage show he keeps things low-key to the point of being downbeat. The tricks progress slowly and with frequent interruptions (at one point, I literally forgot what was meant to be going on). It’s hard to get excited about the ultimate big reveal when the performer himself doesn’t appear particularly bothered by it all.
And the banter, at times, belongs in a different age. He tells a female volunteer that she’s “really pretty” and that he wants her to feel like a “princess”, a turn of phrase that’s undoubtedly intended to be gallant but is actually just toe-curling. He punctuates his act with a series of off-colour jokes, on topics ranging from masturbation to boozy vomiting to the death of Diana (although, to be fair, that last one is hilarious). According to the programme, this humour is “wickedly naughty” – but I’m afraid it’s just not sharp or subversive enough to be described like that in Edinburgh.
The show’s partly redeemed by one creative and surprising illusion – which Roberts reveals won him a prize at the Edinburgh International Magic Festival – and the big finale is genuinely impressive, though not especially showy. But Card Magic tries to be both a conjuring show and a stand-up comic turn… and in the end, it doesn’t quite hit its stride as either.