Magician Ali Cook conjurors with comedy as he brings his latest show to Norwich
- Credit: Submitted
Principles of Deception promises a mixture of awe-inspiring magic and off-beat comedy from the TV star who tells us why magic continues to fascinate, why humour is magic and his sleight of hand comedy heroes.
Comedy and magic have long enjoyed a close relationship — amaze them and make them laugh. Think the clowning of Tommy Cooper, the showbiz patter of Paul Daniels, the off-beat humour of American duo Penn and Teller or the manic edgy comic and passionate magician Jerry Sadowitz.
You can add to that Ali Cook who is bringing his own brand of awe-inspiring magic and off-beat comedy to Norwich Playhouse this weekend with his latest show Principles of Deception.
Originally from Harrogate, he moved to London as an established magician looking for new work and fell into stand-up comedy after meeting Sadowitz, who got Cook involved in sketch shows.
Inspired and keen to explore improvisation and comedy, he went to America before returning to star in West End magic spectacular Impossible, and has since been seen on Penn & Teller: Fool Us, Channel 4's Dirty Tricks and been reunited with Sadowitz on his Channel 5 show Jerry@Trick.
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There was a book written in the 1940s called Principles and Deceptions and it was the first magic book to categorise every type and style of magic that there is. That's what I do over the course of the show – I literally perform every type and style of magic there's ever been. I did the show in Edinburgh in 2011 and it sold out and got five-star reviews so I thought 'This is a show I can take on tour'.
What can audiences expect to see when they come along?
I do everything from what you've see Derren Brown doing – psychological magic, which is a huge part of the show – to more unusual kinds of magic that aren't seen very often, like sleight of hand and stage illusions. One thing I'm known for is being one of the few people who've kind of brought back stage illusions where someone might get in a box, disappear, then reappear at the back of the room. It's something that's very rarely seen.
How does it differ from your previous shows?
It differs from other magic shows in general because a lot of them tend to specialise in one type of magic and they're often very serious whereas I approach magic as a stand-up comedian would. I don't take it too seriously and I do a mixture of styles. The difference in terms of my own shows is that Principles of Deception is bigger and more elaborate.
What do you hope audiences will take away from seeing the show?
In a really great magic show I think there should be a routine at some point where people just go 'No way!' and they have a feeling of being really astonished. What's weird about magic is that different things affect different people. It's a bit like comedy. You might think people are either amazed or they're not, but people are amazed in different ways just as people like different jokes in different ways. You just hope when people leave the show there's one trick where they just have no idea how it was done and they genuinely have a sense of wonder.
What are the challenges of doing magic on stage compared to on screen?
On screen if it starts going wrong you can just cut the cameras and start again. [Laughs] If the spectator is being a pain you just say 'Thanks very much' and get another one. The challenge with getting people up on stage is that you have no idea how they'll be and they really make or break the show. When you get a fantastic spectator there's nothing better.
How do you handle it if something goes wrong in a live show?
Because I don't take myself too seriously it's kind of OK, but believe me I practice a lot. [Laughs] It's not at the top of my list to go wrong so I do a lot of preparation, hoping to eliminate a lot of problems. Still, there's always an element of the unexpected. Every time you go to a new theatre it's a different place at a different time with a different crowd and you're not quite sure how it's going to go, but that's part of the fun.
Why do you think people are so entranced by magic and illusion?
It's really interesting that there's been such a big resurgence of it in recent times. I think maybe one of the more recent things is that it's become more accessible because of the internet. When I first started out even getting a beginners' book on magic was really hard, like if you went to Waterstones they wouldn't have one. It was very shrouded in secrecy whereas now it's easier to access. I also think people are genuinely intrigued by someone's clever mind and by the psychology of it.
Your mixture of magic and humour is unique. How did you develop your style?
I was friends with the comedian Jerry Sadowitz, who used to live opposite me. I was always fascinated by both comedy and magic and comedy is very similar in that you set up an expectation, then you surprise the audience. Quite a lot of my friends who are very good comedians are also very good amateur magicians because I think it's quite a similar skill. So it started from there and also the huge difference between a close-up magician and a stage magician is that the latter has to do presentations and hooks. For years I was a close-up magician, like most of my friends are, and you don't really need a story because you're just going 'Pick a card' but the minute you're on stage it's not a chat, it's like a monologue and you have to have a presentation.
Do you have any pre-show rituals?
[Laughs] I'm nearly always falling out with the magician's assistant over something. I spend most of my time trying to keep them happy but at the end of the day you have to say 'Look, I know we're really good friends but at some point you're going to have to hide in a very small space – is that OK?' Normally before a show there's so much to remember that I sort of zone out and don't think of anything, then weirdly in that first moment when you start it all comes back to you.
Who are your heroes when it comes to magic and illusion?
There's a magician called Ricky Jay, who did a show on Broadway and all he did was card tricks. He's also an actor who was in quite a lot of Bond films and he was in House Of Cards written by David Mamet, who also directed his first stage show. I like that idea of doing a theatrical magic show rather than just doing magic at private events. I like Penn and Teller a lot. They have a similar approach as kind of normal guys, essentially like comedians, doing weird and interesting things. They're an inspiration and also there's Cy Endfield, who was a magician as well as a film director. He directed Zulu. He's one of my heroes because I'm into film as well as magic. He wrote one of the best books on card tricks of all time and he directed Zulu – that's not bad going, is it? [laughs]. He was probably doing card tricks between takes.
You're coming to Norwich Playhouse. Does it have a special significance for you?
I've never performed in Norwich before although I did do a magic lecture for the Magic Society there when I was 17. I'd won the British Championships and they asked me to do a little lecture there, which was really great fun.
• Ali Cook: Principles of Deception is at Norwich Playhouse on September 30, 8pm, £15 (£13 cons), 01603 598598, norwichplayhouse.co.uk