Edinburgh International Magic Festival: It’s time to focus on hocus pocus

Gary James
Gary James
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There will be magic in the air this week when the Edinburgh International Magic Festival gets under way.

Starting on Friday and running until July 6, this year’s festival is the biggest yet, with more than 30 performers from eight countries set to wow audiences.

The range of shows is quite the trick in itself, with everything from classic close-up magic to the Ukrainian master of illusion Voronin, described as a cross between Dracula and Casanova.

Opening with a gala show featuring some of the finest acts in the world and closing with a Four Nations Magic-Off, the line-up has been put together by Kevin McMahon – who will just be hoping Scotland don’t pull a wooden spoon out of the hat. He started his career on the Channel 4 show Faking it and after fooling Paul Daniels on national TV he has gone on to perform across the country, and this year will bring his show to the Fringe for the fourth year running.

Before then he has the small matter of the Magic Festival to sort out. And he set a high standard, launching the programme with a grand illusion involving a storm of paper butterflies, and now he’s doing his best to make tickets vanish.

Opening the festival will be one of the highlights, a Magic and Variety Gala Show at what is expected to be a packed Royal Lyceum.

“It’s always special, and this year there are a couple of acts that I haven’t actually seen live before,” he says.

Kevin has seen videos of their performances, but that desire to see the magicians in the flesh has helped bring the audiences flocking to previous festivals.

“It has to be seen live, and more and more people want to see it live,” he says.

“As an audience member you have a responsibility and you’re part of the show, and a good performer can use that to really get the hairs on the back of your neck standing up.”

While many of the tricks and techniques used in illusions date back centuries, others have evolved even since the festival started in 2010.

“Magic always moves with the times,” says Kevin. “A hundred years ago electromagnetism was picked up really quickly by magicians, and now you have magicians interacting with projected objects, using visual perception and lights to mess with your mind. A lot of that goes on behind the scenes, of course, and while magicians are incredible all-rounders – they make their own clothes, they design their own tricks, put together their acts, know about their lighting and sound, everything really – there are still a lot of people behind the scenes who never get recognised, because if the audience knew they were there it would ruin the illusion.”

Not all the tricks are being kept secret though – after proving a huge success last year the organisers have expanded their Magic School to five days, offering youngsters aged seven to ten the chance to learn the secrets and skills they’ll need to thrill their classmates.

The school is run by professional magician Gary James, who has the unique claim to fame that he once made Harry Potter author JK Rowling disappear.

Helping him out will be a line-up of other conjurers, including John Archer, 52, from Stockton, who will be teaching some of the basic tricks of the trade to eager young students.

The comic close-up magician and mind reader – “like Derren Brown with jokes” – already has a huge fan-base thanks to his BBC show Help, My Supply Teacher is Magic, and is also appearing in his own show during the festival, Forget about the Tricks, at the Traverse Bar.

He has been a magician for 15 years, during which time he’s earned the accolade of being the first man to fool legendary illusionists Penn & Teller.

Unlike the wizarding wannabes he will take charge of in Edinburgh, however, he didn’t attend a magic school – unless you consider a London comprehensive to be magic of course.

“I think like most magicians I started when I was quite young,” he says. “I went to school in London and there was magic shop across the road. I used to go in and buy toys and joke stuff. It was run by a magician called Alan Alan. I saw a couple of tricks, and then he got me interested in it and I bought a few tricks and it went from there.”

The sort of mind reading tricks John uses in his own act are perhaps a bit advanced for beginners, although he says the lessons at the school will not be too far removed.

“Most magic tricks will have the same basic elements in them, and that’s what we’ll cover,” he says. “It’s like a lot of jobs – you need to learn the basics first.

“So we’ll probably do a few card tricks, making cards disappear and reappear and how to guess someone’s card, maybe rope tricks. Even the simple stuff can be very cool if you do it right, and there is a lot of method to it.

“Of course they’ll come in at different levels – there will probably be some kids teaching me a few tricks!”.

As well as the Magic School, eager students can also book in for a five-hour master class in street magic with the Javier Jarquin – known in magic circles as the Card Ninja.

After five years of training there’s very little the New Zealander can’t do with cards, whether it be mind-bending street magic tricks, “fight of hand” techniques or just some of the astonishing card throwing with which he made his name.

So what tricks can parents expect to see their brood attempting?

“I’ll be showing them all sorts of things,” he says. “Picking someone’s card from their mouth, stuff like that. It’s sleight of hand, misdirection, and if a lot of people knew how the trick worked they would be disappointed, but if you present it well it makes quite a performance.”

Now based in London, Javier, 29 – who also has a solo show at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on July 7 where he will be showing off the full range of his tricks – wasn’t always a ninja.

“I was a software engineer, and I quit my job in New Zealand and turned to magic as a way of making some income,” he says. “Performing on the street you need to be ready for anything – it’s not like having people pay to come and see you, a lot of the time you could have an audience that really doesn’t want to see any magic. You learn pretty quickly though, and if someone isn’t interested you generally know within a few minutes.”

• The Edinburgh International Magic Festival runs from June 29-July 6, various venues. Full programme details and tickets available online at www.magicfest.co.uk. Tickets also available by calling Hub Tickets on 0131-473 2000 or in person at Hub Tickets, the Hub, Castlehill