The Psychic Project, Vaults Theatre

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It’s only fair to say this up front, but the performance of magician and mind reader David Narayan’s The Psychic Project that I saw on 14th June didn’t go to plan. The show started 15 minutes late due to technical problems, there were numerous further technical problems that occurred throughout the show, and Narayan had to re-do at least one of his tricks when it didn’t work. It really wasn’t his night. Although he gets points for persistence and for keeping control of the room when he was on the verge of losing it. The show must go on, after all.

The other problem with The Psychic Project is that it’s not a great show. If you’ve seen Derren Brown’s shows, which are clearly an influence, then this is nowhere near as good. This is despite the show having a strong hook: the psychic research project conducted by the CIA in the 70s and 80s.

Yes, that’s right. The CIA spent several decades trying to train up people with supposed psychic powers to identify threats from the USSR and other enemies. Research which saw them conduct experiments into whether ‘psychics’ could identify people, locations and military activities through the power of their minds. And in the show, Narayan leads us through the history of this research project and the experiments.

The experiments start out fairly benign – identifying objects on a card or in a box – then proceed to getting participants to draw unfamiliar locations or identifying locations on a map. Narayan also gets members of the audience to try these experiments out, and amazingly, even those audience members who claimed no psychic ability at all, always succeed. Although that’s probably more due to Narayan’s sleight of hand than their innate ability.

Which leads me to another problem with this show: for the tricks, sorry, experiments to work, Narayan has to be able to successfully lead the participants to get to the right place. Something which doesn’t tell us a great deal about the ways in which the research project succeeded (which it did occasionally) and failed (which it did most of the time). And why so many people working on the project were convinced that psychic ability was real, despite the poor results, is pretty interesting. Were the ‘psychics’, like Narayan, magicians? Or did those working on this project somehow manage to convince themselves they hadn’t been wasting their time?

But we’re kind of left to guess the answer to those question because this is really a mentalism show, not an analysis of a bonkers CIA research programme. Except – and presumably to avoid admitting that what he’s doing are basically magic tricks – Narayan is distracting us with the research project. Well, he is a magician, and making the audience look one way while he accomplishes the trick somewhere else, is what magicians do.

As a high-concept magic show, The Psychic Project doesn’t work cohesively as the tricks don’t really enlighten us about the research project and vice versa. The other problem is that the tricks in this show ranged from ‘not that impressive’ to ‘seen it before’, with only the final trick really wowing with its neat twist. And even with that twist, it’s still a trick that’s been done a few times before by various other well-known magicians.

David Narayan is an engaging performer and a skilled magician but the concept of this show needs work and the tricks need to feel more original to really impress audiences who might be familiar with Derren Brown, Penn & Teller and other high-profile magicians.

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