Derren Brown is still the greatest showman, but his emotional honesty is even more spellbinding

Derren Brown: Showman at the Apollo Theatre - Mark Douet
Derren Brown: Showman at the Apollo Theatre - Mark Douet

By name and by nature: the illusionist Derren Brown’s new show, which comes to the West End after a ten-month tour, is a chest-rattlingly entertaining two hours of theatre. It’s moving, thrilling and contains some of the most unearthly sights I’ve ever seen on stage.

It all begins with a man framed in a pool of light. He answers his phone – and, at once, slumps like an abandoned marionette. Then… well, if I gave any more away that would spoil the fun. Besides, I don’t want to find out what unconscious conditioning Brown has laid to ensnare blabbermouth critics.

Suffice it to say, Showman’s talismanic spirit is the American impresario PT Barnum. He coined the phrase “There’s a sucker born every minute”, and was the inspiration for the thumpingly mawkish Hugh Jackman-starring movie-musical. But more charmingly, he also popularised a form of theatre that was lavish and big-hearted.

As his previous tours Svengali and Enigma proved, Brown evidently loves Barnum’s world of late-Victorian fakery. There are no blooms of ectoplasm or rattling spirit cabinets, but the same atmosphere presides. As with the best ghost stories, Brown uses gags and reveals like oubliettes: stumbling into them, you wonder quite how you got there – and how you’ll get out.

In this, the Apollo Theatre is a marvellous partner-in-crime. Gussied up in dark wood and muted gold like Miss Havisham’s powder room, it’s just the space for table-turning uncanniness. Spilling out into the frosty Soho night, still buzzing with what we’d seen, felt wonderfully appropriate. Forget panto – this is the most festive show in town.

Derren Brown with a volunteer in Showman - Mark Douet
Derren Brown with a volunteer in Showman - Mark Douet

But what is the show exactly? The first half follows Brown’s usual mix of number games, card tricks and mesmerism. There’s plenty of audience interaction – but don’t worry, only the most pliant minds make it up on stage; I was never picked. Such close-up magic is Brown’s métier. As a performer, he understands the effectiveness of eerie pools of silence just as much as the necessity of cutting his avuncular patter with a streak of deliciously camp malevolence.

The tone shifts, though, in the second half. The pace slows and becomes more introspective. At first, this is jolting, especially after the bravura high energy of the opening hour. But beneath the panache, it becomes clear Brown has weightier themes in mind – grief, family and the question of what we leave behind gradually cohere into an unforeseen and touching finale. In some ways, this shouldn’t surprise: Brown’s career has moved away from the flashy machismo of his earlier bullet catches and apocalyptic hyperbole; his act is now quieter, more domestic, in keeping with his philosophical self-help books.

Nonetheless, it’s unexpected to see the difficulties of existence addressed in such an unabashedly sentimental way. “The things which seem so isolating are what bring us together,” Brown concludes. If Showman has a message, then, it’s this: acceptance is worth making a song and dance about. And if things don’t always go to plan – well, that’s life.

Until Mar 18. Tickets: 0330 333 4812;