“Please don’t mention anything that happens in the show.”
This request is made by Derren Brown early in his solo magic show, Secret. While reasonable—spoilers would ruin the fun for future audiences—it puts the review in a bit of a bind: how to describe the show without mentioning anything that happens?
It may be best to begin here: Brown doesn’t use the word “magic,” and he insists that he is in possession of no extraordinary or supernatural powers. Instead, he bases his performance on a combination of showmanship, suggestion, and misdirection. Rather than trying to convince us we have witnessed magic, he tells us how he is going to trick us and, despite our preparation, he goes ahead and tricks us anyway.
Of course, this may be part of the trick. By explaining small moments, he makes the larger ones all the more astounding. Sure, subtle cues may shift our reactions in one direction or another, but how can he tell us what we are thinking? How can he discern the contents of a sealed envelope simply by reading the handwriting on the outside?
I have no idea, and I spent much of the remainder of my evening puzzling at the possibilities. Plants in the audience, hidden cameras, and a variety of other explanations were considered and discarded. Perhaps the greatest feat of Secret is that, despite Brown’s protestations to the contrary, we really are convinced on some level that we are witnessing magic.