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Fun with the mentalist

Andy Nyman. Photo: Ed Miller

“It was important for us to be brave,” says Andy Nyman about his latest show with psychological illusionist Derren Brown, intriguingly entitled Infamous. They’ve been regular collaborators for more than a decade now, with Nyman co-writing, and directing, five of Brown’s six touring stage shows, the exception being the 2011 show, Svengali. Entertaining as that last production was, with its creepy automaton and its big theatrical gestures, there were times when the scaffolding felt a little bit too visible, the atmosphere a little too forced.

Now, having reteamed with Brown, Nyman hopes to do something different. “We’ve created a template over the years, and it has been very successful, but it felt, at least in some respects, as if the element of surprise had gone a bit from the shows. The audience knew what to expect from them and it would be doing a disservice to both Derren and the audience to serve up more of the same.”

It was, he says, while cannily avoiding discussing the specifics of the show, quite a difficult thing “to tear up something we know works extremely well and start again,” but you get a sense Nyman’s not someone content to sit still; he’s energetic and engaging to talk with, lighting up whenever we discuss the subject of magic, his passion evident.

They haven’t discarded the rule book completely for this new show – it won’t be “two hours of show tunes” he assures me – but he “wanted to make it feel much more personal and more grown up. Derren’s grown and changed so much over the years and I wanted this show to reflect that.”

[pullquote]One of the things that has always set our work apart in the magic world is that very often it’s agenda-driven. There are things that we believe in and that we want to say – it’s not just about saying ‘look at this trick’ it’s about using magic as a way of conveying things you want to get across, about politics or religion or life[/pullquote]

Now a successful screen and stage actor – he recently played Laurence in Lindsay Posner’s acclaimed revival of Abigail’s Party – Nyman’s fascination with magic goes back years. He’s a magician himself and, in the 1980s and 90s, magic “was my painting and decorating as an out of work actor and I still love it.” He’s published a book on magic, Bulletproof, and in 2008 was awarded the MIMC, the Member of the Inner Magic Circle. In fact he was approached first by Objective to star in its proposed television magic show, but because of his acting career he didn’t feel able to commit to it; instead, when the company found Brown, he was asked to help co-develop the material and he worked on all the early TV specials – including the on-air Russian roulette stunt which made a household name of Brown – as well as the stage shows. The resulting creative relationship has lasted “longer than many marriages” which is why he welcomed the break and a chance to focus more fully on other strands of his career.

One of the reasons their relationship works so well, Nyman explains, “is that we both come at things from different places”. Despite his success he still talks of magic as a “magnificent hobby”. He loves everything about it, “from the cheesiest magic acts to the most sophisticated. Derren’s sensibilities are his own. But one of the things we both love is the history of it”. This affection for and knowledge of the story of stage magic is evident in all their work together and “also means that your work is steeped in something other than your own ego. If you start looking at the things that have stood the test of time, it can unlock things, ideas, themes – what made something resonate a hundred years ago can still resonate now.”

The best magic, he says, “marries the artifice of the trick with as much of your own truth as you can, so it becomes difficult to separate the magic from the reality”.

When creating each new show the key, says Nyman, is to ensure the pair have fun. They enjoy trying to make each other laugh when writing – but they both also feel strongly that magic can and should be more than just spectacle. They start, he explains, by asking themselves what they want to do and then writing down ideas, no matter how ludicrous they are. “One of the things that has always set our work apart in the magic world is that very often it’s agenda-driven,” says Nyman. “There are things that we believe in and that we want to say – it’s not just about saying ‘look at this trick’ it’s about using magic as a way of conveying things you want to get across, about politics or religion or life.” There’s a sequence in Infamous, he adds, “which is about looking at something that goes on in the world that we believe is wrong.”

When asked who his favourite magicians from the past are, he cites the American magician and vaudevillian Al Baker: “He was someone who was before my time but I really love his work. In the 1930s and 40s there were a group of guys who were just remarkable all-rounders. They didn’t just specialise in one thing; Baker did everything from mind-reading to kids’ parties to close-up magic – so he’s a bit of a hero for me.”

He also speaks fondly of the late British magician, Pat Page, with whom he and Brown occasionally worked. “He’d worked the music halls and clubs and knew that era brilliantly – he’s someone I miss.”

Nyman is increasingly in demand for other projects, both as a writer and a performer. We’ve not seen the last of Ghost Stories, the stage play he co-wrote and co-directed with Jeremy Dyson, a production – in which he also starred – which merged the latter’s affection for the portmanteau horrors of companies such as Amicus with Nyman’s love of stage illusion. “I would never have written Ghost Stories if it wasn’t for my work with Derren; it gave me that confidence. Creation is the same across the board, whether you’re writing a song or a play or creating a magic trick, you start with the same blank sheet.” On screen, he’ll soon be seen as a villain, the Tumour, in Kickass 2, and his book The Golden Rules of Acting was published in 2012 and is now on its first reprint having been well received and reviewed.

With so much going on, it’s not surprising he’s been finding it increasingly hard to devote enough time to working with Brown but he’s very happy to have been able to reunite. The show is on tour ahead of its London run and, says Nyman, the response so far, from fans at the shows and from feedback on Twitter, has been very encouraging. He adds: “It’s been such fun to come back to it.”

Derren Brown: Infamous will be at the Palace Theatre, London, from June 24August 17


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