It’s easy to forget that in the midst of the vibrant world of the Fringe – filled with pricey shows, expensive food, and even more expensive pints – hundreds of free shows are performed every night in Edinburgh’s nooks and crannies. You may have to look a little harder for them, they won’t have five-star reviews in The Scotsman. But if you put in the effort, you may be rewarded with a real gem. That’s what happened to me when I stumbled upon Sean Harrington’s Self Deception.
A one-man magic show found in a tiny basement room, Self Deception has nothing to hide behind. The show’s success depends entirely on the quality of Harrington’s performance – and whether he fools the audience. Bringing the audience up to the stage to participate in his tricks, he blurs the lines between performer and spectator, using the small and intimate nature of the venue to his advantage. In a world of magic so at risk of being cliché, Harrington’s illusions are innovative: there are no rabbits pulled from hats, nor women sawn in half. Instead, the audience are left truly amazed and bemused as to how he manages to deceive us – though the entire time, he insists we’re deceiving ourselves.
It is rare for a show to be quite so self-referential as Self Deception. Harrington integrates aspects of psychology into his narrative, providing a fresh, real perspective on magic and why we find it so fascinating. Real magic, he tells us, is how our own brains can trick us into seeing (or not seeing!) all kinds of things.
Beginning the show by explaining in-attentional blindness, a phenomenon where concentrating on one thing makes you blind to another, Harrington gives the example of the ‘invisible gorilla’ – a psychological study where, focused on a task like counting how many times a ball is thrown in a video, test subjects fail to notice a gorilla walk across the screen. The theme of missing what’s right under your nose runs throughout the show. In one trick, Harrington asks two volunteers to count out ten cards each, and hide them in their pockets. He then dramatically mimes moving three invisible cards from one volunteer to the other – the audience quietly giggle, suspecting somehow that this isn’t going to work.
When the cards are re-counted, one person has seven. The other has thirteen. Jaws drop as everyone in the room wonders how on earth they could possibly have missed such an obvious deception. The secret? In-attentional blindness, of course.
Self Deception is a breath of fresh air in the rampant ocean of shows that make up the Free Fringe. Harrington’s eyes twinkle as he speaks, onstage he has a charming and confident demeanour as if chatting with old friends. His comic timing is excellent, his words calm and calculated. With there only being a few moments where sound and lighting errors put the otherwise self-assured Harrington off his stride, I have high hopes for the show returning next year with a little extra polish around the edges.
By introducing us to the psychology of magic, Harrington gives the audience a deeper understanding of his world, making his sleight of hand all the more impressive. All in all, Self Deception is a beautifully crafted show, with no detail gone unnoticed.
La Vida Nightclub – Room 1 (Venue 113)
Until 25 August
Part of the PBH Free Fringe
Image: Malkit Benning