“I always disliked people who pretended to be a psychic,” declares Englishman Chris Cox.
“What I always liked about magic is that you were dishonest – but you were quite truthful in that you were lying to people.”
It sums up Cox’s credo and partly explains his billing in the New Zealand International Comedy Festival as “the mind reader who can’t read minds”.
The funny thing is that while Cox, 28, can’t read minds, he’s so good at what he does that more often than not it appears that he really does know what we’re thinking.
Ahead of Cox’s shows next week, Wellington audiences got a 10-minute teaser during First Laughs at the Opera House on Sunday night. Cox brought three audience members on stage and asked each to choose a different coloured headband to wear, then sit on one of three chairs on stage. One woman was asked to go through a bag containing bits of paper describing pieces of clothing, while Cox said he would know the answers to a series of yes and no questions he put to the three. Cox appeared to get some of the questions wrong. But in a twist that left many in the audience gasping and whispering “how did he do that?”, Cox then went on to reveal that he knew all along what he would get wrong or right. He also knew ahead of time which coloured headbands each of the three would choose, the specific chair they would sit on and the item of clothing on the chosen scrap of paper.
Cox is well aware of the long history of “mind readers” as entertainment. “In the early days it was often a swami going ‘I know what you were thinking’.
“For me what’s interesting is pulling back the curtain a bit. You put your cards on the table and say ‘look, I’m not actually able to do this. Here are some of the techniques I use, now watch what I can do with it’. I like to start off gently and show some of the techniques behind the things as I’m doing it – and that stuff gets hidden more and more as you go down a slightly more incredible route.”
Cox says it’s also an acknowledgement that today’s audiences are smart enough to know that people can’t actually read minds. “But within that you still want to enjoy it as if it’s real. I always hate the idea of someone that sat in the show seeing it as a jigsaw puzzle and trying to work it out.”
Cox’s approach has paid off. Since he began his act while at university eight years ago, he’s become a star of the comedy circuit. It’s included several Edinburgh Fringe shows – along with two Fringe awards – three West End shows and numerous television and radio spots. Kelly Osbourne and Dannii Minogue are fans and one of Cox’s biggest champions is British comedian Ricky Gervais. Cox says praise and recognition from big names has helped. “It’s flattering for anyone to like me, let alone someone whose work I admire. Live entertainment is the best thing in the world. It’s a great thing to go and do. But, particularly in the UK, money’s tight for people and it’s a lot of money to come out and see a show. Hopefully those people liking me, that other people recognise and admire, [makes] people think ‘he’s worth the risk’.”
Cox got his first taste when he was given a magic set when he was six years old. “My parents used to take me up to London to see my uncle and aunt and we’d always pop into a magic shop there and buy a magic trick. I always enjoyed performing and magic I gravitated towards.”
And yes, he says, there have been moments in his shows where he’s stumbled with an audience member. “It happens quite often, there are lots of times I’m good at covering it so no- one will really know. Rarely a week of shows goes by where I won’t pick someone to use for a trick and then look at them and change my mind and send them back.”
One of the most significant developments in Cox’s career he could only confirm in the past week: the Syfy channel in the United States has signed him up to do what at the moment is known as “the untitled Chris Cox project”.
“It will be a mind-reading show following my life as I try to mess with people’s minds,” Cox says.
“I am quite excited. [Television] is a very different beast. I know the world of theatre and performing my own shows, I know how to do the tricks and how to make stuff work. We’re trying to develop it in a way to make that come across on TV and still get the wow factor – still get people to feel involved and enjoy the performance.
“I still feel that I’m at the very early stages of my career. I haven’t hit a point where the momentum suddenly explodes. What I like now is the excitement of being able to come to Wellington for the first time and I’m still a ‘new act’ to the city. I’m a new act with a load of experience.”
By Tom Hardy for the Dominion Post, New Zealand