Wonderville review – pick ‘n’ mix variety show loses its magic

·2-min read

The first thing to say about Wonderville is that the magic is good. Coloured handkerchiefs turn into fluttering doves. Someone is sawn in half, another squeezed to a fraction of his size. Chris Cox reads the audience’s mind with boggling accuracy. There are few surprises but it is still technically complicated stuff and the illusionists stump up.

The magic is not the problem. The show, directed by Annabel Mutale Reed, is presented as a variety performance but it feels ad hoc and suffers from not having a broader, joined-up story or theme.

Justin Williams’s set appears like a cut-price replica of a Las Vegas magic show (lights, smoke, giant sparklers) and tonally the production is a confusing mix of cabaret, holiday camp entertainment, panto and pub act. Comedy runs through the magic, so little of it feels straightfaced or that it is trying to wow us in the old-fashioned way.

The most traditional is Edward Hilsum, a magic champion who does wow us by conjuring birds out of thin air and performing a charming skit with a child from the audience (the child wears a coat and Hilsum manipulates its arms).

Cox, also our compere, has the air of a zany kids’ TV presenter and at times, it feels like an awkward marriage between a children’s show and illusion crossed with standup. There are even beer jokes from Kat Hudson, who asks us to calculate numbers on our mobile phones. Hers is a naturalistic, slow-burn act that doesn’t sit neatly with the pace of the rest. It is a shame, too, that illusionist Josephine Lee injures her leg early on and is unable to perform her act.

It all abounds with cheesy jokes, the best of which come in visual puns: Lee, at the beginning, points to moving legs with no torso attached and asks us to “welcome my half sister”. Richard Young, one half of double act Young and Strange, clambers out of a box spiked with spears to drink a bottle of water and spouts fountains from his suit, as if leaky with holes. The act, also featuring Sam Strange, performs a Las Vegas pastiche to the strains of glam rock which sends up the big, blingy, David Copperfield-style show and is both wry and amusing.

But this production as a whole does not offer a cohesive enough alternative style. Its very British cohort – quirky, diverse and self-deprecating – is undoubtedly talented but might have been more inventively showcased beyond the pick ‘n’ mix we see here.

At Palace theatre, London, until 30 August.

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