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Devil in the Deck
Published on Sunday, 04 August 2013
4

4 stars

Pleasance Dome (venue website)
Theatre
31 Jul, 1-4, 6-11, 13-18, 20-25 Aug, 4:10pm-5:10pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Family-friendly. Suitable for all ages.

“This isn’t a magic show,” says the devilishly avuncular Paul Nathan, and that might just be the one unvarnished truth his hour-long act contains. Yes, there are card tricks, and yes, his easy drawl belies a sharp line in chicanery. But he’s also a compelling actor; and he’s joined on the stage by a fine guitarist too. Between them they deliver a quirky, striking piece of theatre… one with potential to appeal to those whom conventional illusionists leave cold.

But don’t get me wrong – if you do enjoy stage magic, then you absolutely need to see this show.  It contains just three significant card tricks, yet every one of them is breathtaking.  The first is an energising ice-breaker, featuring a seemingly endless procession of ways to pluck a card from the middle of the deck; the next one is plain bamboozling, but it’s the last which is a true masterclass.  Nathan runs through it twice, close-up under a camera, and the second time through he explains exactly how it’s done.  For once though, the forbidden knowledge doesn’t spoil the illusion: being in on the secret simply enhances the sense of wonderment at his sheer physical skill.

But this is, first and foremost, a storytelling show.  The tale’s a fairly simple one, of a card-sharp who finds love in defiance of a tarot-reader’s curse, but the pace and physicality of the performance more than compensate for any weakness in the plot.  In one stand-out scene our hero runs with the bulls in Pampalona, and it’s a pure adrenaline-rush of visceral drama; the guitarist strummed, and my heart pounded, and it felt like the ninety seconds of terror lasted forever.

There’s another parallel tale, about a crafty father’s innovative way of helping his indecisive son, which would have stood up well in almost any other context.  But alongside the breathless excitement of the bull-run, it proved too much of a lull in the pace for me.  I also found the later scenes a little schmaltzy, though I entirely accept that others would disagree; what’s beyond dispute is Nathan’s impeccable command of his wordy script, and his obvious talent for performance.  He commands a large room, and fills a bare stage, in a manner which would put many a highbrow actor to shame.

There’s plenty of humour too, both from Nathan and guitarist John Anaya.  The latter, scooting round the stage on an office chair, brings a finely-judged sense of irony to his role, with a warm understanding of how stereotypically dramatic his musical interventions sometimes are.  So overall, there’s an awful lot shuffled into this particular deck: some magic, some theatre, some polemic and some chat.  But the pair play their hand beautifully… and the devil in the deck held me utterly in his thrall.

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