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Published on Tuesday, 24 August 2010

4 stars

Laughing Horse @ City Cafe (venue website)
16 - 29 Aug (not 16), 11:30pm (12:30am)
Reviewed by Craig Thomson

Peter Campbell-Wells is a mentalist.  As he says, that word used to only have one meaning... so understand that he is a performer capable of astonishing feats of mental acuity and seeming clairvoyance, that will leave you dumbfounded and scratching your head.

In the year that Assembly attracted ridicule for bringing 'psychic' Joe Power to Edinburgh, Campbell-Wells' free show is an appealingly sceptical counterpoint to the offerings of such overpriced, underperforming charlatans.  As the title suggests, Campbell-Wells is not a psychic – he doesn't claim to have any supernatural ability, and doesn't suggest that he is The Man Who Sees Dead People.  His powers are based on reading human behaviour, which makes them all the more impressive.

The show starts well, with a number of fairly impressive routines as the late-night audience works its way in.  But once everyone is here, he breaks out a genuinely jaw-dropping example of mental magic.  Obviously, the easiest way for the trick to work would be through the use of plants in the audience – but as one of three people participating, I can swear with absolute certainty that there was no prior knowledge on my part.  I'm fairly sure the other two guys were genuine as well, or else they were brilliant actors able to convey bewilderment and shock with absolute veracity.

It needs to be witnessed for maximum effect, but the short version is that Campbell-Wells asks the first person, brought up on stage, to think of the craziest question they might ask a psychic; the second person, sitting in the audience, to think of a personal quirk that a psychic couldn't possibly know; and the third person (me), also in their seat, to draw something which is both simple and recognisable.  The result – three out of three – is amazing.

An interesting feature throughout the show is Campbell-Wells describing the techniques that psychics use to pretend to be in communion with the dead – the twelve questions that describe everyone, or the seven things that everyone is after – and by the end, you begin to have a sense of what he's doing.  I've tried to be circumspect in describing the astonishing routine above because I have an inkling of what was going on – but no more than that, of course.  That's part of what I think Campbell-Wells is trying to achieve: to have audiences think critically about what psychics do.  They may sound impressive, but there's a technique or a procedure to it, not a supernatural ability.

At the end of the show, there is another involved routine that comes to an astounding conclusion, a seemingly impossible feat of foretelling.  But as Campbell-Wells departs the stage, the audience is literally left holding the evidence, allowing us to reverse-engineer the mechanics of the illusion just a little.  It doesn't diminish the experience, and I think it must be deliberate that he allows us to do that – he's too good for it to have been a slip.

Psychic? is an impressive performance from a technically superb mentalist, that allows you a peek into the Emerald City to see behind the Wizard's screen.  Knowing what he's doing, in the limited sense that we can, doesn't reduce the impact of the results of a thought-provoking show – one that's well worth your time, and your money in the hat at the end.

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These are archived reviews of shows from the Edinburgh Fringe 2010.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to those we've featured, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.

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