It is perhaps stating the obvious to point out that the limits imposed by monologue mean that they require a compelling character to be worthwhile. Magic both does and does not achieve this.
The short, written by Darren Sharp, and re-staged here as part of the New Vic’s Hoard: Rediscovered series, follows Pete (David Nellist) – an archaeologist who loves nothing more than finding things in the mud. It’s a passion he’s followed since he and his friends found some gold while digging in the garden at aged ten.
He’s a lovely, engaging character, given a real warmth by Nellist’s performance. You can’t help but smile as he recounts stories from his youth and adulthood – in all the tales, he ends up with muddied ‘kegs‘ (trousers, if you’re a southerner like me). Nellist instils a childlike wonder within the mature Pete, making it easy to go along with him and laugh at his good-natured impressions of his gran, dad, childhood friends, and even his own daughter. This is helped by an exuberant physical performance, as well as clever camera work from director Gemma Fairlie that employs quick cuts and different angles to add a layer of youthful energy to the piece.
A weakness of Magic, though, is that everything feels stuck on the surface level, despite Pete’s stories of digging underground. As we peel back layers of Pete, nothing surprises us. Instead, it confirms what we already know about him, and means that the piece begins to feel stale. The stories that Pete tells do illustrate why he loves his archaeological work so much, suggesting that he’s hunting, not for gold, but for the thrill of discovery that he felt in his youth. But there’s not an awful lot more we learn about Pete, and it results in him appearing a little one-dimensional.
Another issue is that it’s unclear who this monologue is directly addressed to. This is an issue that has plagued a few of the shows in the Hoard: Rediscovered series – as if the writers have been more focused on the subject of the monologues (the hoard itself) rather than their context. The design of Magic (by Mika Handley) suggests a random encounter at lunchtime, but the multiple camera angles undermine the quotidian nature of this scenario, and makes it seem more performative. Possibly, this is the price to pay for the youthful dynamism that the editing provides – and it’s a matter of personal taste as to whether this is worth disrupting the setting.
A strong, but subtle line tracing through Magic focuses on the theme of work and the benefits of finding fulfilment and satisfaction in a career. It’s an uplifting, positive message that strikes against more negative sentiments that suggest work must always be an obligation.
Magic is undoubtedly a mixed bag. It’s anchored by a wonderful performance from Nellist, as well as imaginative direction from Fairlie that has strengths and weaknesses on two sides of the same coin. This reflects Sharp’s script, which contains a liveliness and distinct voice, but also fails to develop as it progresses. However, due to the gregarious Pete, Magic has an undoubtable charm to it.
Magic is streaming online until December 1st, for tickets and more information see the New Vic Theatre’s website.