Will Derren Brown’s New Show Change Magic Forever?

A look at how audiences are reacting to the concept of actors playing magicians.

Will Derren Brown’s New Show Change Magic Forever?
Simon Lipkin & Yolanda Ovide in Unbelievable

After its run of previews out of town, Derren Brown's new magic show had its London press night last week. I plan to see it early next month and encourage you to do the same.

This post isn't about the content of the show but more about the overall concept. I know a bunch of the talented people involved. I've been lucky enough to get random sneak peeks of its development in all sorts of weird ways – including a time I arrived home five years ago to find my actor flatmate, who I didn't even know was part of the show's workshops, practicing a giant magic trick in my living room.

But the main reason I'm intrigued about the show is that I'm a little hooked by the concept of replacing magicians with actors and musicians and whether it could become a trend we see across magic.

This aspect of the show is no secret; it's a big part of the marketing. Derren himself has pointed it out multiple times, like in a discussion with The Guardian:

Brown said that creating a magic show using actors and musicians directed by him, O’Connor and Nyman “just felt like a really appealing idea.”
“Unbelievable” is a magic show without professional magicians, and some of the seven-person cast are making their West End debuts. The result is what Brown called a production without ego. There is no lead role.
Musicians are used to rehearsing and repeating, which helps when learning magic tricks. In general, because most of the cast members did not have a background in magic, they approached the material with an open mind and did not have to unlearn habits, the show creators said.

It's fascinating – I've worked with many magicians on stage shows and TV shows, and there have been plenty of times I've wished we could swap them out for actors. By doing so, Derren's team gets complete control of the show and can take it in any direction – with singing, music, and dance.

Trust me – a rehearsal room with an actor is 1,000 times better than a rehearsal room with a magician. Every magic consultant raves about the days they work on non-magician projects.

Personally, the handful of days I helped produce magic on an ice skating show and Groundhog Day: The Musical were far more exciting than 90% of the days I've worked with magicians (sorry, magicians). And on that ice show, the stars were all professional athletes and ex-Olympians – boy, they knew how to rehearse/train, and their abilities beyond operating the magic were incredible.

Very few magicians have trained in stagecraft (this is an unfortunate fact).

Even Nathan, One Ahead's content producer, and I often talk about a specific kind of one-person interactive magic play we'd like to write to be performed by an actor. It's just a more exciting prospect for us to entertain that way.

Derren's team have spent decades pulling off impossible illusions and stunts, but they've never been able to make him appear on multiple stages at the same time. If this new show "Unbelievable" is a success, it could just as well be playing on stages worldwide simultaneously with different actors.

So, what does this mean for magic? Is it a sign towards a new trend of magic shows starring non-magicians? Might the next famous magicians or popular magic shows be cast entirely with actors, acrobats or stunt performers?

It's hard to know, but today, we'll look at the reviews for Derren's show and specifically how lay audiences react to a magic show propped up on the idea of performing actors instead of magicians.