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Spirit Sideshow
Published on Thursday, 10 May 2012

3 stars

Laughing Horse @ The Temple (venue website)
5, 12, 19, 26 May, 8:15pm-9:15pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Suitable for age 18+ only.
 World Premiere.
 2-for-1 tickets for Friends of the Fringe members.

Stage magician Peter Campbell-Wells has been shopping on eBay – and when you’re a self-confessed fake psychic, what kind of things do you buy?  Why, it’s obvious: haunted things.  Haunted relics, haunted models, haunted toys… all utterly fraudulent, but all of them earnestly hawked by their purportedly clairvoyant owners.  In this brand-new show, Campbell-Wells has a fair old laugh at the sellers’ expense, using their spiritual tat as a jumping-off point for his own distinctly-sceptical routine.

It’s a rich seam to mine, and the best tricks of the night were closely tied to a recurring “show and tell” vibe.  My favourite, I think, was a topical riff on the Titanic, which used (supposedly) genuine mementos from the doomed liner to make predictions on the way a pack of cards would divide.  You may well have your own theory on how he does it, but that’s really not the point; it’s a well-conceived and cleverly-constructed routine, which captures and exploits our creepy fascination with the trappings of the dead.

Halfway through the act, though, I felt Campbell-Wells lost his way, falling back on some very standard tricks with little relationship to his supernatural theme.  In one routine, he correctly identified which members of the audience had placed random objects into his drawstring bag; but rather than making any connection with the world beyond the veil, he justified his guesses by Derren-Brown-style observational psychology.  I’m sure that, with the aid of a few more knick-knacks picked up on eBay, he could work that same trick up into a compelling piece of magical theatre.

The last stunt, which draws together a handful of threads spun throughout the show, has the potential to become a dramatic, impressive finale.  But as it stands, it’s a little too complicated, especially as a fair number of the audience had plainly been spending time with spirits of a different kind.  There are too many things written on too many scraps of paper, and even I – sober as a judge, of course, given my reviewer’s role – began to lose track of the meaning of them all.

It’s brave and gracious of Campbell-Wells to invite me to the first ever try-out of his show, and it’s not surprising I’ve picked up on a few things to improve.  Even given those reservations, it was an entertaining and sometimes-befuddling hour, with a relaxed and highly personable performer.  With a bit more focus on its distinctive, creative theme, it’ll shape up to be more than just a sideshow.

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These are archived reviews of shows from Brighton 2012.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.