Stage Door Review

Gold Coast, AUS: Illusions

Sunday, June 4, 2017

✭✭✭✭✩

written and directed by Matt Hollywood

Magician Matt Hollywood, The Village Theatre, Sanctuary Cove, Gold Coast, AUS

Fridays & Saturdays, August 28, 2015-booking to January 31, 2020

“Hollywood in Queensland”

Anyone visiting Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia, and looking for a live show to please adults as much as children need look no further than Matt Hollywood’s year-round magic show Illusions that has been playing in Sanctuary Cove since August 2015. The 90-minute-long show showcases Hollywood’s versatility as a magician from large-scale illusions to sleight-of-hand. What shines through in everything is Hollywood’s uncanny ability to connect through gentle comedy with the widest variety of people.

Those with VIP tickets that gives them seating closer to the stage, enter the auditorium of The Village Theatre earlier than the others are are treated to about 30 minutes of short subjects on film. This includes animation, short docs, did-you-knows and and other miscellanea on the theme of magic. Still, a faux-documentary about the unluckiest footie goalie ever turns out to be the funniest part of this intro. I’m no fan of watching film when I’m expecting live theatre, but this intro does link Illusions to the days of vaudeville when a famous magician would be the top billed player after a series of variety acts.

The way Hollywood begins the live portion of his show is not very promising. Expecting, no doubt, to wow the crowd, Hollywood starts with three large-scale illusions in a row. He himself suddenly appears in a once-empty cage, his lovely assistant Kristy Probst suddenly appears with a wave of a large flag and he then levitates Probst and makes her disappear. All three stunts are performed wordlessly to blaring pop music.

The problem is that these three, no matter how well done, give a false impression of the show to follow. It is exciting to see large-scale illusions in a theatre as small as The Village Theatre that seats only 220, certainly a privilege unavailable at the resident magic shows in Las Vegas or in touring shows that play to houses of 2000 like The Illusionists. But for newcomers encountering Hollywood for the first time, this beginning leads one to worry that the whole show will be in this exhausting and ultimately fairly similar style.

Luckily, this proves not to be the case. Efficient though Hollywood is in large-scale, impersonal magic, Hollywood’s real forte is the arena of the small-scale and interpersonal. Hollywood cultivates the looks of a model – perfect tan, perfect hair, brilliant smile. But he acts in a very ordinary, non-condescending way with the people he chooses from the audience. They may become the subject of jokes, but this is mild humour about the situation and never mean-spirited.

His first interaction with an audience member does not really involve magic at all. The chosen person hides a die with different colours on each face and Hollywood guesses the colour on the top face simply by noting the person’s change of expression when Hollywood mentions the correct colour. The routine immediately establishes the natural rapport Hollywood has with the audience.

It is then all the more surprising when Hollywood then chooses a member of the audience to be the subject of a grand act, known as the Chair Suspension Illusion. A plank is held up by the backs of two chairs at either end. The audience member lies down on the plank that is covered with a cloth. Hollywood removes one chair and the plank is still suspended horizontally. Many magicians end the trick here, but Hollywood then removed the second chair leaving the plank suspended in mid-air. A hoop passed around the plank proved the unbelievable. Of all Hollywood’s grand illusions, this is the most successful.

Hollywood then returns to close-up magic but puts a new spin on old ideas. Illusions is the first magic show I’ve ever seen that made use of a smart phone. First, in a manner similar to the colour-guessing earlier, Hollywood divines the password to unlock the phone of a hapless audience member. Then he changes the phone to its calculator function. He has audience members call out various numbers to be used in a calculation which result in what seems like a long meaningless number. The number, however, is not at all meaningless, and when parsed by Hollywood has a significance that is amazingly specific.

Of all the tricks Hollywood does, the two most likely to be remembered involve placing audience members in unusual situations. In the one he has a youngster aged about 5 come on stage and asks the kid for a handkerchief. (How many kids carry handkerchiefs nowadays?) Failing that, Hollywood accepts the use of one of the kid’s sneakers instead. Hollywood intends that the sneaker disappear in a flash of fire, but the trick goes wrong and all he can give back to the child is a scorched, partially melted shoe. The good grace with which the child accepts this sad turn of fate is both hilarious and touching. (Hint: things do turn out well in the end.)

In the other Hollywood selects a man from the audience and tries to visualize what he would have been like as a child magician. To do so, he takes out a mini magician’s outfit and has the man put his arms through the legs into the shoes. Hollywood puts his own arms through the arms of the tailcoat. The man thus becomes a kind of human puppet with Hollywood performing all sorts of card tricks as if the untutored man were doing them. The fun of this trick has much less to do with magic than with the incongruence between what the upper and lower halves of the puppetized man are doing.

One reason that Hollywood can perform small-scale magic, such as card tricks, for an audience of 220 is that he has thought of a way that cards can be seen all the way to the back of the theatre. Unlike regular cards, Hollywood uses ones with only a number, or K, Q or J, with a suit symbol, one pair right side up, one pair upside down. This makes the cards infinitely easier to read that conventional playing cards.

While the man-as-puppet trick would have been a good routine to use to end the show, Hollywood goes out with a grand illusion, which changes from night to night. the evening I saw the show he used an escape from a cage called the Bear Trap. The set-up was that Hollywood had to escape in 30 seconds after being tied and handcuffed before a huge metal claw came crashing into the right side of the cage where he was confined. Unfortunately, this was the weakest of the illusions. Hollywood needed to establish first what would happen when the claw crashed through just to create a sufficient atmosphere of danger. Next the claw seemed to be held in place by a rope slowly being burnt by a fire, yet it was not at all clear that the fire was having any real effect on the rope.

Luckily, the audience’s appreciation of Hollywood was so high throughout the previous 85 minutes that this lacklustre finale was not enough to dampen its enthusiasm. One still felt elated to have seen a show of such high quality in so intimate a venue. With so much audience interaction and with Hollywood rotating some of his routines, Illusions is a show one could happily see again and again.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Kristy Probst and Matt Hollywood, © 2016 Regi Varghese; Kristy Probst (floating) and Matt Hollywood.

For tickets, visit www.illusionshow.com.au.