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Brighton Festival 2013

Bullet Catch

The Arches Glasgow

Genre: Drama

Venue: Spiegeltent, Brighton


Low Down

The Bullet Catch is the greatest challenge for any illusionist. A stunt so dangerous that even the great Houdini refused to attempt it, it has claimed the lives of numerous illusionists, assistants and spectators since its conception in 1613.

Now, with a little help from his audience, modern-day marvel William Wonder presents a theatrical magic show featuring storytelling, mind-reading, levitation, games of chance and – if you’re brave enough to stay for it – the most notorious finale in showbusiness. Tense and thought-provoking, it balances suspense and humour with a perceptive exploration of despair and of the nature of choice.


The Bullet Catch was one of the ultimate tricks peddled by the magicians of the Victorian era. Being shot in the face by an assistant, or in some cases an audience member, the magician would aim to catch the bullet in his teeth. Whilst only an illusion, it was nonetheless a dangerous pastime, and several magicians fell at the hands of rogue participants who put foreign objects down the barrel of the gun, in order to test the magician’s true skill. 

This performance explores the history of one such magician William Henderson, and also turns to the other side, that of the (in this case guiltless man) who shot him, and the impact the inadvertent murder had on his life. At the same time, the performance also touches on more existential matters – questioning chance and fate and illustrating this with mind control-style magic tricks that boggle the mind. This is technically a one man show but with a very unusual twist. Early on, the modern day magician, William Wonder (Rob Drummond)  asks for a volunteer. From the sea of hands he whittles them down to a few brave souls, by asking people to put down their hands if they are unwilling to do certain tasks (such as read aloud), or if they are even slightly inebriated. From the greatly diminished pool he chooses one person (in this case someone I knew, which rather gratifyingly proved that this was not a stooge who had been planted) and that person remains onstage for the entire performance, as integral a part of the performance as the man himself. It is a great device and lends an honesty and liveness to the production which is very effective.

William Wonder is a very gentle and personable chap, with a disarming honesty that no doubt prevents us from seeing through to the cunning behind his magic tricks. At one stage in the performance he reflects on the nature of magic, and how, whilst audiences claim to wish to know how a trick is done, actually they are usually disappointed when they know the truth. He then offers us the chance to discover how a certain trick is done. Being given the chance to look away (which I see no one doing), he reveals the secret of the levitating table. And yes, whilst clever it is ultimately disappointing. Because most magic tricks are actually something quite simple, or mechanical, which is bound to be a let down when, if you are really honest with yourself, a part of you hopes that it is real.

The finale of the show is of course the famous bullet catch, and a handgun is revealed and loaded with bullets. I won’t say what happens, but this is all incredibly well done. Despite an evening deconstructing the nature of illusion, I am nervous, and tense. And despite the fact that I am CERTAIN that this can’t be a real gun, as surely they are illegal, and would never be allowed in a packed theatre, it does look pretty real, and that is a rather large hole it just made. So despite my scepticism my heart is pounding, and it’s hard to look. And isn’t that actually the whole point? The whole nature of the showmanship demonstrated by magicians throughout history. Even if something can’t possibly be real, even if this person in front of us has defied all laws of physics; if I still get a physical reaction coursing through my body watching the trick, in spite of the scream of frustration coming from my logical brain, then hasn’t the magician done his job? And in this case, done his job incredibly well. 


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