James Tibbles

at 13:01 on 24th Aug 2017

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In this new production from Strickland Productions, Joe Strickland “blends theatre with magic and illusion” in four stories of a personal and political nature. The result of this mash-up is a show with moments of poignancy against weird abstract connections between magic tricks and life. Sometimes these abstractions are strained, but I admire Strickland’s experimentation with narrative and illusion.

There are four parts to this play that tell the story of “a homeless person, a gambling addict, a political preacher, [and] a television presenter. Each character has their own struggles rooted in the contemporary climate of a mental health crisis and political oppression. The show starts oddly, with Arthur Mckechnie playing a voiceless homeless man interacting with a disembodied voice played through speakers. At this point, a lack of humour and charisma is uncomfortable and the magic is poorly executed. The trick behind a floating ball, for example, is visible from the sides of the auditorium.

The story of a gambling addict is also an uncomfortable watch, but for the right reasons. Natalie Henderson plays an emotive addict in a fractured relationship with her partner. It is not always convincing, but nonetheless delivered with some moments of poignancy. What’s more, the unimpressive card tricks seem more appropriate for a playground magic competition than a theatrical experience. Up to this point there is also a kind of lethargic monotony that underlies the first half of the play, but maybe this is intentional?

The show really comes to life, however, in the second half. Audience participation encouraged by Lara Bellis as a confident political preacher re-enlivens the audience with pace and wit. Abstract comparisons between psychological mind games and political oppression is challenging and an original way of throwing light onto our relationship with governmental powers. Finally, a charismatic shopping channel presenter from Joe Strickland is an interesting ending. We see his façade crumble in an important story of a man struggling with the loneliness and grind of daily life. The actors show competency, but a lack of dynamics and nuance shows a neglect of detail in the direction and writing.

All in all, ‘Strangers’ needs some fine-tuning, but it is a promising creative pursuit; it is not easy to execute a naturalistic portrayal of such hard-hitting themes. Strickland Productions manages to weave illusion into narrative without being gimmicky, but the magic sometimes hinders rather than helps the performance. The concept is strong, so I am excited to see how this company develops over time. There is no better place than the fringe to watch this happen – I hope Strickland will be back.

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Constance Kampfner

at 14:13 on 24th Aug 2017

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Actor and director Joe Strickland conceived of ‘Strangers’ because he felt that magic had lost its way. Magicians, no matter how talented, would often just perform trick after trick, loosing the truly magic element: performance. His play, which is structured around four characters each taking it in turns to their stories, with magic tricks integrated into their respective monologues.

It’s a refreshing premise, which is mostly successful. I particularly enjoyed Natalie Henderson’s character, a gambler whose chips would disappear in front of the audience’s eyes as she plunges into deeper and deeper debt and despair. Although her performance was a little shaky at first, she warmed up as it progressed and by the end I was truly enraptured in her character’s plight.

However I felt that for a magic show, the actual magic in ‘Strangers’ needed to be much stronger. Often the cast seemed to really on bought goods, such as gimmicky packs of cards which we have all seen before. At one point there was an attempt at hypnosis which awkwardly seemed to fail, although to her credit Lara Bellis smoothly navigated that dip.

There were also moments when true magical talent was displayed but I would have liked to have seen many more of those. Generally the cast’s acting was much stronger than its magical abilities, which isn’t surprising given that three out of four of them had never practised magic before being involved with Strickland’s show.

So if you’re looking for a magic show to blow you away, this might not be the one. But if you’re happy to treat it more as a piece of theatre than a spectacle of wizardry, then ‘Strangers’ promises some wacky personalities, moments of heartbreak and some light-hearted magical fun.

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