Culture: The art of deception with Ali Cook
With Ali Cook’s new tour, Principles Of Deception, his mission is simple: to give audiences some wonders and illusions that they have never seen before.
“Steve Martin said that comedy isn’t always pretty, and I think that should also be true of magic,” he explains. “Sometimes with magic it’s good to scare people or shock them whether it’s through an escape from a water-tank or from fire. For me, it’s about showing things that people haven’t done for a long time. Most magicians will see David Blaine and copy him whereas I try to go ‘Well, that’s what he’s doing so I’ll do the total opposite’.”
You may have seen the sleight-of-hand king on such TV programmes as Dirty Tricks, Monkey Magic or CBBC show The Slammer where he performed Harry Houdini’s water tank escape trick to some astonished kids), but for Ali there is nothing that can quite match the thrill of live performance. “When you see something on TV like a girl getting in a box that is then crushed and she disappears before reappearing, you think, ‘Well, yeah’. But live, it’s just amazing!”
Ali’s new show is a mixture of close-up magic, a bit of stand-up, psychological mind reading and grand illusions that will open the show with a bang and finish it with a flourish.
“One of them is the Blaney Levitation. Walter Blaney is 84 now and I had to ring him up and plead with him to let me have his illusion. Instead of levitating your assistant, you levitate someone from the audience.”
Principles Of Deception is based on a book written in the 40s by Australian magician Arthur Buckley, who was the first person to categorise every type and style of deception. “So it covers everything from regurgitating goldfish to psychological magic all the way through to sleight of hand with coins and to a stage illusion where a woman disappears. I based the show on this book by going through it chapter by chapter and doing each type and style of trick that there is, so that it becomes almost a sketch show of magic.”
While every touring act has their struggles with the slog of being on the road, a one-person-with-a-mic stand-up comedian has little in the way of physical baggage to cart around the country. It’s a rather different story for magicians.
“One thing I pride myself on is that I perform big stage illusions because no one sees them anymore in this country; if you go to Las Vegas you’ll see it. Doing grand illusions that no one has seen makes you different from everyone else, but the problem then is that you’re touring around with a massive box and you can get backache.”
Ali states that his two biggest fears are claustrophobia (“which is not good for an escape artist”) and dying on stage. Both of those anxieties have eased with years of practice and he’s learned how to handle whatever kind of crowd happens to be in the room on any given night. “You have tough nights and you have unexpectedly good nights. Some nights you might randomly have a load of kids in and the next night it’s a boozy comedy club, so although the tricks are all the same, the scripting around them often radically changes in the moment. That used to get me nervous, but I like it now.”
The comedy is just as important as the trickery for Ali: “Because I’m with Off The Kerb, one of the big comedy agents, I think that my stand-up should be half decent. . . I’m a magician who is a lover of comedy, but at the same time you can’t go into deep conversations about Brexit while you’re making an apple disappear. When Dave Gorman started doing his slideshows he said that he was a humourist rather than a comic; that’s a good way of summing it up.”
Fortunately, audiences don’t have to worry too much as Ali is just as adept at making people laugh as he is having them gasp in awe at the conjuring. All the while, he’s aiming to stand out from the crowd.
“There aren’t really that many magicians around, but like a comic, you want to have your own brand. So I’ve always thought about having the attitude of a comic that’s doing magic, and of being a normal guy who’s into weird things rather than a weird guy trying to be normal.”
Ali Cook then is a regular guy who just so happens to be doing some extraordinary things at The Quay theatre in Sudbury next month.
Ali Cook: Principles of Deception, October 26, Quay Theatre, Sudbury. 01787 374745, quaysudbury.com