The Family Hoffman's Mystery Palace

Cahoots NI invite you into the magic circle

Adelaide Scarzez was a magician, dancer and performer, known internationally as the Queen of Magic. One of the biggest stars of Victorian music hall and vaudeville, she began her career as an assistant to her husband, the renowned French magician Herrmann the Great, and ended it with the ignominy of a one-woman show in a small, shabby circus tent on Coney Island.

But whether performing on the world’s great stages or to a handful of indifferent holidaymakers, Adelaide never faltered in her mantra that the show must go on.

In this, Cahoots NI’s most complete, atmospheric show yet, Christina Nelson goes for broke as the expansive, exotic Adelaide, presenting her irresistible brand of popular entertainment to audiences of rapt children and their equally wide-eyed adult companions.

Director/writer Paul McEneaney (himself a member of the Magic Circle) has created a headily intimate little space, which allows tantalising, close-up glimpses of mind boggling sleight of hand conjuring and illusions.

Steve Bamford’s colourful set, framed in scarlet plush velvet curtains, is enclosed in an old-fashioned striped tent - reminiscent of those used by the old fit-up companies - whose troupes of travelling players invited the public to enter into brave new worlds of wonder and imagination.

The show and its novel presentation cleverly capture the spirit of these heady days, playing on village greens, school yards, seaside promenades, football pitches… anywhere, in fact, where there is an eager passing trade.

Nelson’s wild-haired Scarzez is joined by some of the finest magicians of her day: the Davenport Brothers, the Fox Sisters, the Great Lafayette, David Devant, PT Selbit and Chung Ling Soo, the Chinese magician who invented the bullet trick – and who was discovered not to be Chinese at all, when his mask slipped as he died on stage in a bungled stunt, organised by his wife.

Hugh Brown, Caolan McBride, Nicola Cunningham, Maryke Del Castillo and Timmy Hannington are the performers entrusted to deliver a non-stop succession of stunning magical feats, all to the sounds of Ursula Burns’s bewitching music, played and sung live by composer, cast and fellow musician Thomas L Muinzer.

The show’s timing is perfectly judged at a rattling 40 minutes, during which the pace and interest never falter. And the tricks come thick and fast – a watch donated by an audience member disappears, only to re-emerge in a locked cage; a fragile girl is packed into a casket and pierced with spikes and swords; a skinny man performs an incredible balancing act on a pyramid of chairs; and a ghost emerges intact from a tiny box. Through it all is threaded the emotion of Scarzez’s poignant personal odyssey

The history of magic is full of marvellous tales and larger than life characters. McEneaney’s sure touch with young imaginations is here working at full stretch and with a talented, attractive ensemble cast at his disposal, the resulting mix is a sure-fire artistic and box office success.

Jane Coyle

The Family Hoffman's Mystery Palace is currently touring to Cavan Town Hall (June 2-3), FE McWilliam Gallery & Studio, Banbridge (June 4), Sandy Bay, Larne (June 5), Flowerfield Arts Centre Grounds, Portstewart (June 6), Town Hall Grounds, Bangor (June 12), Imaginosity, Dublin (June 13), and Seafront, Ballycastle (June 14).