Theatre Review: Brendon Peel's Hocus Pocus

By: Mandy J Watson
Posted: 22 September 2017
Category: Review Comments View Comments


Mentalist and magician Brendon Peel is in Cape Town to confound audiences with a show, which is running as part of the Cape Town Fringe Festival, that presents a selection of effects that will entertain and mystify fans both old and new.

Theatre Review: Brendon Peel's Hocus Pocus

Brendon Peel is a young magician from Port Elizabeth who has been performing professionally since the age of 18 and who spent his formative years studying magic without the help and supportive environment that most Cape Town magicians experience as a result of the presence of the College Of Magic. Over the past six years he has regularly featured at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown and has occasionally also appeared in Cape Town at the Cape Town Fringe Festival and the Cape Town Magic Club. One of his career highlights has been performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

His show, Hocus Pocus, which forms part of this year's Cape Town Fringe Festival, is a mentalism act with moments of magic woven in between. Mentalism is a challenging choice as it often results in routines that don't necessarily elicit the same sort of audience response as a magic effect, often because the audience observes only the production and the payoff, which doesn't always hint at the hard work that was put in to get to that result and the intricacies that lie behind the routine. However, through experimentation and experience, mentalists often eventually offer a truly amazing and bewildering experience. Think of Derren Brown, for example. He's a mentalist that Peel cites as one of his major influences as he was growing up and there are nods to this throughout the show.

I'm not sure why the show is called Hocus Pocus, however. There's no direct connection between what is presented and the term, bar the fact that they both are a link to magic. The show features a selection of mentalism effects leading to a finale that Peel devised himself and has spent many hours of behind-the-scenes work perfecting, although I didn't fine the finish to be strong enough, which I often experience with mentalism shows, and therefore I would be interested to see it performed in front of a different audience - the reason for this will become clear in a moment.

Theatre Review: Brendon Peel's Hocus Pocus

There are also a few magic effects, one of which was a lovely card routine that I haven't seen before and really enjoyed and another that is aimed at younger audience members as the Fringe Festival performers have no idea of who is going to be in the audience so Peel wanted to make sure that there was something accessible for everyone.

Not knowing what to expect in an audience means adjusting on the spur of the moment. Peel is known, by his own admittance, for more risqué jokes and material but last night he sensed the audience wasn't particularly interested in that kind of humour so he gently changed the tone while also taking the opportunity to try new material to see how it would be received. I enjoyed the humour that was presented. This was my first time seeing Peel perform so I haven't experienced his more risque material, although I can envision exactly what it might be like from seeing the performances of other magicians, and it is not something I would enjoy, so I was glad that my first experience of seeing him live was a more moderate one.

Before attending last night's performance of Hocus Pocus at Alexander Upstairs at Alexander Bar I had dinner with a few friends who don't know much about magic and I ended up explaining to them why I think magic/illusion/mentalism is the hardest of all the live performance arts. The reason is the audience, which brings an element of randomness and surprise to the room, no matter the skill of the performer. The magician can be the best, most practiced in the world, and there can be absolutely no possibility that an effect will go wrong but human nature, manifesting in the odd behaviour of strange audiences, can thrown a curveball into the mix that can ruin the timing in a routine or at least mute the climax.

Theatre Review: Brendon Peel's Hocus Pocus

Over time a performer's experience with audiences can reduce this problem significantly. This was a key point in Stuart Lightbody's most recent show, Unique Wonders, in which his familiarity with his material, and his experience adapting to any situation that may arise from unexpected behaviour from an audience member, was so acute that it resulted in him devising a show in which the audience is specifically tasked with making decisions that cause a level of unpredictability by affecting what he performs next and what the outcome of the show will be. Unlike other magicians who work to master the environment, he chose to do the opposite and insert some (admittedly controlled) chaos into the production to challenge himself. The reason he is able to do this is because, over many years and hundreds of performances, he has learnt to deal with all manner of unexpected events with subtlety and grace and he has also worked to create an environment of wonder that attracts some people but not others, and ultimately then draws future audiences that are respectful of this intention. (In other words: people who pay attention and behave.)

Last night during Brendon Peel's performance of Hocus Pocus the opposite happened. It was a strange audience. The people were rowdy and disruptive, not in an intentionally disrespectful way; it just seemed as if there were too many with latent dreams of becoming a comedian and this night was the night they all decided to practice their material and try to dominate a moment, even though it wasn't their place to do so. Alcohol played a factor in some cases, general brazeness in others. A few audience members were just, truly, odd people.

I've seen worse audiences but I've never seen anything quite like this.

One audience member, when asked to pick a card and hold it close so that no once could see what was on it, held it close facing towards the audience, momentarily thwarting Peel's plan, which had been to figure out what was on the card and reveal this. He handled it easily by simply asking the audience member to pick a new card so he could start again but there was a moment where he was a little thrown by this - understandably - and it did mess up the flow of the effect.

In another instance an audience member, who was ensconced in the most inwardly facing "hey shoo wow" moment I've ever seen - a true physical manifestation of a Cape Town stereotype that I've never quite believed existed until last night - seemingly failed to notice the big reveal in giant red letters in front of him. The rest of us could see it but we couldn't quite read the nuance of the reveal, which usually would have been evident in the audience member's reaction - had there been one. This, unfortunately, muted the climax of the effect because Peel didn't know how to deal with someone quite so... oblivious.

Theatre Review: Brendon Peel's Hocus Pocus

Moments such as these are just not normal and although Peel handled it all as best he could, with most of the rest of the audience, bar magicians and seasoned magic fans, likely unaware that he was experiencing a rather unique challenge, but there were times where I could see that some of the wonder in the moments was lost, just by sheer bizarre luck of the night. Afterwards, when I spoke to him about the performance, he told me about some other moments of wonder that he had intended to create but that just weren't able to happen, which I won't go into because at any other show they will be there so I don't want to spoil them.

This was an odd night and it left me ruminating further about the demeanour of an audience, the intentions of a magician, the environment that's created by the two intersecting, and the role that a magician's experience plays in being able to control these aspects even when they manifest as something completely unexpected. The control only comes through experience and experience is only gained by performing in front of audiences over and over and over.

Theatre Review: Brendon Peel's Hocus Pocus

Brendon Peel is on that journey. He's talented enough that he has performed at prestigious events such as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival but there's more for him to learn. If I think back to performances by Stuart Lightbody or Bryan Miles 10 years ago and look at where they are now the difference is profound. The same will be true of Peel, whose enthusiasm for magic and the dedication that he offers the craft was evident as I talked to him after the show. He will learn to perfect those skills that you can't learn from books and DVDs - and I will be watching this happen with interest.

Mandy J Watson was a media guest of the Cape Town Fringe Festival.

Brendon Peel will be performing Hocus Pocus at Alexander Upstairs at Alexander Bar, 76 Strand Street, Cape Town, on 23 September 2017 at 22:00, 24 September 2017 at 22:00, and 25 September 2017 at 17:00 as part of the Cape Town Fringe Festival. He will also be appearing as the headline act at the Cape Town Magic Club, at The Taj in Wale Street, on 25 September 2017 at 19:00 and 21:00.

Cape Town Fringe Festival: Official Site, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter
Alexander Bar: Official Site, Facebook, Twitter

Tags: #arts_and_culture, #cape_town, #magic

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