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Oliver Meech: Live Brain Surgery
Published on Tuesday, 10 May 2011

3 stars

Laughing Horse @ The Hobgoblin (venue website)
9-13, 15-19 May, 6:30pm-7:30pm
Reviewed by Craig Thomson

 Suitable for age 18+ only.
 World Premiere.
 Free show. No ticket needed unless otherwise stated above.

Oliver Meech offers us Live Brain Surgery, but I feared that his opening gambit would end instead with reconstructive hand surgery – as his very real scalpel bounced repeatedly and dangerously off its intended victim, a humble balloon.  In the end, no magicians were harmed during the making of this show, but the story does offer a suitable metaphor for his performance – which similarly failed to pop at first, but got there in the end.

The premise of the show is encapsulated in the phrase 'magic meets neuropsychology', reflecting Meech's own unusual blend of backgrounds: stage magician and Oxford-educated brain scientist.  There’s a lot of space within this magic vs. science theme which could be explored, and on paper Oliver Meech sounds like just the man to take us through the inner, perhaps mystical, workings of the mind.  There is some interesting background to the science throughout the act, from Phineas Gage to phantom limbs, and the illusions attempt to demonstrate elements of this live before our eyes.  And some of these are successful – I did enjoy the routine around synaesthesia, a condition where individuals receive stimulation through one of the senses but experience it in another (seeing sounds as colours is a common example).

Quite often, though, it’s all too clear that the stage magic and the science bit do not converge.  The explanation of the way the brain functions is authoritative and fascinating, but the demonstration is almost always a parlour trick which mimics some of the experience, rather than the real thing itself.  OK, it's a bit much to expect a free show to provide low-level magnetic field stimulation to the parietal lobe (it induces a religious vision in the mind of the participant).  But there’s a famous real-life experiment on phantom limbs, for instance, which involves a rubber hand and could easily have been replicated on stage – and would surely have been more thrilling than the alternative on offer.

The theme is ambitious, and while it might not manage to bridge the gap between magic and neuroscience in just one hour, the two elements work well enough independently.  You’ll learn quite a bit about the physical and psychological idiosyncrasies of the human brain, and you’ll be suitably entertained by a display of stage magic which, opening-night kinks aside, was confident and polished.  There is a hopeful level of audience participation throughout, so be prepared to get involved and play along.

And the performer himself is a gawkily charming presence, taking everything in his stride with admirable self-deprecation.  He does well to build a rousing conclusion, which thrilled the largely-credulous audience.  If the focus had been just a little closer to the rational-science end of the scale – and a little further from rabbits in hats – I'd easily have been one of them.

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