“Josephine and I ran through the backstage corridors of this beautifully ornate theatre. We guided ourselves by the exciting and powerful glimmer of the lights in the wings. Already there, we felt the audience’s roar resonate between the horseshoe shaped wooden balconies. The luscious red velvet curtain lifted to reveal our stage magician variety show in action as we ran out on stage.” *
Norvil is my debonair alter ego. He is a magician who can sing. He performed his stage magician variety show act Norvil & Josephine in the Leeds City Varieties Theatre a few weeks ago. For those who do not know, this handsome theatre carries an honour. It’s 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 the famous Harry Houdini. Houdini 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).
More recently televised Leeds City Varieties’ The Good Old Days ran for over 30 years on BBC with Leonard Sachs at the helm. However these days the great Johnny Dennis** hosts it and it still rolls out every spring and autumn. You can 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 trimmed with glittery golden ribbons? That shine, that tingling soft texture… pure luxury! A stage magician’s variety show delight!”
RESURGENCE & REINVENTION
Another variety show that has kept the tradition alive in the UK is the itinerant Royal Variety Performance. In addition, the famous London Palladium variety show keeps on going. The latter was 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). Other hot nouveau variety examples include La Soiree at the Roundhouse. And London Wonderground dazzles with its cutting edge mix of 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!”
GIVE ‘EM THE OLD RAZZLE DAZZLE
Both the traditional and the newer edgier versions of the genre are in essence the same… perfect exercises of escapism. The colourful and 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. The magician who sings and the assistant who contorts help sass up the affair. As I commented on a previous post, 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. But the end must come. 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.”
THE DISAPPEARING MAGIC ACT
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?
To compensate for that, this weekend London readers have the opportunity to attend the annual Magic & Variety Gala show. It’s a stage magician variety show dream-come-true. The show is produced by the International Magic Shop and is 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 London’s Mermaid Theatre.
Maybe see you there?
UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN
“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.” – CH
Say hello and drop me a note in the comments below. Thanks for coming along with me and I hope to see you again after a few more turns in the trail.
* text in italics is excerpts from Norvil’s diary.
** Johnny Dennis sadly died on 3 December, 2016, after this article was written. RIP, Johnny. You’ll be missed!