The Vaults is where the magic-cum-terror show Master of the Macabre chooses to house its horror. There are not many venues more suited to hosting the first solo stage performance of Benedict Barber – a pseudonym, the programme points out, just in case anyone is inexplicably in doubt. With its long echoing halls and sloped walls, the space gives the audience members the sense of being in a coffin. A trendy coffin, mind. It’s hard not to feel pretty damn cool sipping a drink in the bar with a slumped dummy sat next to you.
With Barber’s touch of adult humour, swearing, and talk of death and the ‘other side’, Master of the Macabre fits with the building’s ‘coffin chic’ style. Barber is a cool, creepy host, with his silky detached voice, flair at whipping up enthusiasm even in the small audience and – what we’re all really there for – some suave, mesmerising tricks. People scream, laugh and are even brave enough to unselfconsciously make jokes, a rare delicacy in participatory theatre that our host plays off with ease. It is no surprise to me that, when the much-celebrated magician Chris Dugdale strolled past Barber’s street show in Convent Garden, he recognised a performer comfortable in and convincing at what he does, and decided to help him onto the stage.
But the piece’s content doesn’t live up to Barber’s showmanship. “Everybody loves being scared, don’t they?” asks Barber. Firstly, no. Secondly, Master of Macabre isn’t really that scary. The flashing lights and sound effects, which are occasionally so overdramatic they border on comical, deliver only cheap jumps and, even then, only rare ones. At the show’s most toe-curling, Barber forces poor creepy crawlies into the spotlight – hardly the “most terrifying magic show you will ever see” when the peak of its horror also appears at children’s parties.
Without the spooky extras, a standard – or maybe even substandard – magic affair is revealed. It is expected, or at least accepted, that there will be plants amongst the audience, but the script’s bloated reliance on them is quickly boring. Despite some impressive moments, most tricks are also performed by countless other magicians and easy to zone out of even at their climaxes. Yet more snooze-worthy is the is predictable, unimaginative story of Barber’s identical twin brother that threads throughout the piece, unnecessarily lengthening and detracting from a production that could be short and sweet. Here, the show’s most convincing trick is vanishing the magic itself.
Barber performs a few noteworthy, how-did-he-do-it tricks, but is at his most skilled and assured when interacting with the audience, seemingly effortlessly creating an edge-of-your-seat atmosphere. Master of the Macabre may veer towards the ridiculous, cheap and unconvincing but, with such an enthralling magician at its wheel, it does so in style and with heaps of fun.
Master of the Macabre is playing The Vaults until 1 November. For more information and tickets, see The Vaults website. Photo: Jack Sain.