The Playbill of Derren Brown’s Secret shows the illusionist with a finger over his lips, making a ‘shush’ motion. Indeed, he asks at the beginning of the show that all reviewers not write about what happens in the show.
So, one part of this can be short and sweet: go see Derren Brown’s Broadway show which opens tonight (at the Cort Theatre, to Jan. 4, 2020). Be flummoxed, amazed, floored, fascinated, freaked out, charmed, and wonderstruck. (Big names like J.J. Abrams and Thomas Kail have been—they signed on as producers.)
Brown is a well-known British illusionist. He sells out stadiums. He has caused controversy—from a notorious game of Russian Roulette to predicting a set of National Lottery numbers.
This Broadway show is two and a half hours, skates along so richly and efficiently you don’t notice that, and not-much-changed from the 2017 off-Broadway show of the same name.
The shared elements—a particular Hollywood superstar; the last extended set-piece involving members of the audience, drawing, and a word—are present and still seem just as astonishing as they did on the much-smaller stage of the Atlantic Theater Company (also one of the producers on Broadway).
Of course, it’s impossible to write about Derren Brown’s show without writing about Derren Brown’s show. He would smile at that. He’s a wonderfully dry host for this evening of surprises, a skillful overseer of magic and illusion (he strenuously denies that he is a psychic). He toys with people, but not cruelly. He is charming, wry, brisk.
He is very funny too, noting of one mysterious stage intruder that it’s Glenda Jackson (the Cort’s previous resident as King Lear.)
There are some shocking moments—you would be best advised to listen to Brown when he advises those with sensitive secrets to keep them to themselves on this evening.
Can we believe what we see? Things happen in front our eyes that most of us do not see. There are some amazing sleights of hand. As with the best magic, the question is, “how did he do that?” and to think that you know—just wait for after the show, and all the conflicting theories bandied excitedly about—when really it is a marvelous, head-scratching mystery.
What can one say? You will see people on the stage, people selected by frisbees being flung into the audience. Brown seems to have supreme control over them, and all events—and when he doesn't, well, that seems a little convenient. How has Brown burrowed into minds, you wonder? How did he make that impossible thing just happen right in front of you?
The “secret” of the title refers, he says, to his keeping secret his homosexuality for such a long time; he told me a couple of years ago how he had once hoped to “cure” himself. Now he is happily out, and settled with partner and dog.
Brown told me that there was no technical trickery involved in all the bamboozling feats he performs. There were no secret cameras, no secret plants.
“None of those things,” he said. “It’s exactly what I say in the show. It’s just getting people to tell themselves a certain story of what is happening. Ninety-nine percent of it is happening right in front of you, but you’re sort of compelled to join the dots in one particular way.”
Brown told me that he had begun learning illusion and hypnosis while at university in Bristol, studying law and German. In his first year of study, he went to see the illusionist and hypnotist Martin S. Taylor.
“It was one of those life-changing moments. I left thinking, ‘I am going to learn how to do that.’ It was a very good show. It wasn’t making people look stupid. It was hilarious, and you were laughing with the participants and their bafflement, not at them.”
Brown had a vague thought about being a lawyer but became “obsessed by hypnosis—it’s about control, the man of mystery and so on.”
The crafting of a show, the handsome and engaging Brown told me, was around a “what if” moment. “There is no actual psychic mind-reading going on, because that would be impossible. What you’re left with is a spectrum of activity: conjuring through to hypnotic and other suggestion-based techniques. I take all of that and try and blend it into a compelling experience.”
The point of Secret, he said, was that there are always things on stage—and in one’s own life—that aren’t the full story: “Sometimes you need to be aware of the bigger picture you are missing.”
“I sell you a story,” Brown told me. “That’s all it is. I try and get you to join up the dots in a particular way. It’s all there in front of you. If you’re amazed by it, you’ve joined up dots in a particular way. It’s all perfectly explicable.”
He chooses participants by how open and “suggestible” their faces are. People, Brown said, trap themselves into ways of thinking, and that inhibits them from figuring out what he is doing.
Well, Brown is brilliant at what he does. Watch carefully, and see if you can figure out what he’s doing. Whatever, while telling you nothing, hopefully I’ve told you everything you need to know in order to buy a ticket for Secret right now.