“Josephine and I were running through the backstage corridors of this beautifully ornate theatre. We were guiding ourselves by the exciting and powerful sparkle coming from the wings. We were already there, we could feel the audience’s roar resonate between the horseshoe shaped wooden balconies.”
Norvil, my debonair alter ego, performed his stage magician act Norvil & Josephine in the Leeds City Varieties Theatre a few weeks ago. For those who do not know, this handsome theatre has the honor of being one of the very few that have kept the variety genre alive in one of its traditional forms. Hat off from me!
Variety shows have been a natural habitat for a stage magician such as Norvil or the famous Harry Houdini, who performed his death-defying escapes in this same venue so many years ago (read about a Houdini act of mine going all wrong in a live show here). The once televised Leeds City Varieties’ The Good Old Days (it ran for over 30 years on BBC), now hosted by the great Johnny Dennis, still rolls out every spring and autumn for you to immerse yourself in the Victorian-Edwardian music hall atmosphere.
“The majestic curtains opened! Oh! what a beautiful sight! Aren’t these types of theatres marvellous? Less is more… they say. Well, I absolutely disagree. Who doesn’t secretly love those sumptuous burgundy velvet curtains framed with glittery golden ribbons? That shine, that tingling soft texture… pure luxury! A stage magician’s delight!”
Other variety shows that have kept the tradition alive in the UK have been the itinerant Royal Variety Performance or the famous London Palladium variety show, which has been revived this year by British television network ITV. But the genre has reinvented itself in the past few years, living some sort of renaissance these days.
It’s gratifying to observe how the public favours variety again with new productions like La Clique (with Swedish comedy stage magician Carl-Einar Häckner), La Soiree at the Roundhouse, and London Wonderground with its cutting edge cabaret and variety in the London Southbank.
“My opening feat was to satisfy the audience’s insatiable desire to cut ‘the lady’ Josephine in half. Having been reassembled multiple times, Josephine is not with the best of predispositions at the prospect. I must mention I always find myself amused at how effusively the respectable public stares opened-eyed with excitement at the matter… as if they would doubt my skill at bringing her back in to shape!”
Both traditional and new edgy versions of the genre are in essence the same… perfect exercises of escapism. The colourful and vibrantly exuberant performances compete with each other to offer the live viewer an apparently frivolous entertainment that conceals a high number of skills and crafts.
For example, the stage magician act Norvil & Josephine brings together magic with singing, dancing, and acrobatics. As I commented on a previous entry, a magic trick on its own is just a cold and naked gimmick. Magic comes alive with an engaging delivery, and this is ever more important for a stage magician in a variety act.
“Greet, slice, reassemble, float, sing, dance, slap, vanish, reappear, kick, tap, twist … and at the end… as a stage magician when the curtains fall I’m always devastated. It’s hard to say good-bye to the delightfully decadent party atmosphere of a variety show. The people whispering, commenting, gasping, laughing… it’s such a treat for me and for them.”
However, some of the contemporary variety shows don’t even have a single magic act – something remarkable if you consider the history of the genre. I would say that a variety show without magic is like a cake with no sugar. So who’s up for all icing and sugar, a variety show with mostly stage magician acts?
All of you in London this weekend have the opportunity to attend the annual Magic & Variety Gala show produced by the International Magic Shop and hosted by the incomparable compère Noel Britten. They’ll roll out three consecutive nights this year complete with stage magicians and other great international variety acts at the Mermaid Theatre.
Maybe see you there?
“While Josephine and I have our toes tapping around in the variety of the past, we’re creatures of tonight. I’m a stage magician who loves those beautiful people out there in the dark and we’re ready for them, to dazzle and delight.”*
* excerpts from Norvil’s diary.