Chris Cox remembers the first magic trick he ever performed. But mostly, he remembers the response it ellicited from a beloved family member.
The trick involved a 20 pence coin, a lead pencil, and the illusion that the pencil had somehow moved through the coin. His uncle, who’d just finished a mouthful of spaghetti bolognese at dinner with his wife and a very young Cox, was instantly infuriated.
“He offered me £20 to tell him how the trick was done,” Cox recalls.
“I remember, at eight years old, thinking – I’m a young kid and I’m creating that feeling of wonder and amazement. I realised suddenly I had the power!”
Today, the responses Cox ellicits with his magic are often still borne of frustration, but mostly they are moments of complete and utter gobsmacked amazement.
The little boy with a store-bought magic kit grew up to study psychology, and – in a genius move – fused his passion for the human psyche and magic to become a mentalist. (Mentalism is a performing art in which its practitioners, known as mentalists, appear to demonstrate highly developed mental or intuitive abilities.)
The UK native – whose protruding teeth, black-framed glasses and cringe-worthy jokes reek of a young Austin Powers – is now in global demand for his ability to “read minds”. Cox will join a line-up of some of the world’s best magicians in The Illusionists, opening at Canberra Theatre this week direct from Broadway.
Cox was handpicked for The Illusionists by producers who saw him astounding audiences in new show, Fatal Distraction, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
The simplicity of Cox’s work is part of its attraction.
He starts by asking an audience member to think of a musician. He then correctly guesses the musician they have in mind. He asks another audience member to think of an animal, and takes off his T-shirt to reveal he’s wearing a leotard featuring the exact print of the animal they chose.
It leaves audiences reeling. Is Cox telepathic? A clairvoyant? Does he actually use mind control? Or is it more about deduction? How did he just do that?
“I say I’m a mind reader that can’t actually read minds,” Cox laughs.
“I’m honest. I can’t read your mind, but what I can do is make you think I can read your mind. And that’s the grey area I operate in – that’s where I’m honest and use magic tricks.
“I use psychology, influencing, body language. I use devilish good looks. And then if you Google me you can see I also use lots of lying.”
Cox admits that audience members are their own worst enemies when it comes to “tells”, or giving away what they’re thinking through their body language.
“But that’s the joy of being a human and that’s what makes us human,” he says.
“We give things away because that’s how we communicate. We communicate verbally and non-verbally, and everything we do gives something away and allows us to connect with each other on so many levels.
“I get the same reaction to my magic wherever I go in the world because at a base level, we are all human. We’re connected and we all have similar ways of behaving worldwide.”
In Canberra, audience members at The Illusionists will receive a blank card before they enter the theatre and be asked to write down something they want Cox to do on stage. They’ll then seal the card in an envelope and write their names on the front.
“In America, it was all about flossing and singing Baby by Justin Bieber,” he laughs.
“Things tend to get fairly predictable – oops did I just say that?”
In The Illusionists, Cox will be joined on stage by a formidable line-up of seven of the world’s best magicians. There’s The Daredevil, aka escape artist Jonathan Goodwin, who’s been hanged, buried alive, dangled by his toes from helicopters, burned at the stake.
Korean-born An Ha Lim, aka The Manipulator, delivers a slight-of-hand routine “widely regarded as one of the most masterful performances in the world” says the promo materia. The Conjuress, aka Jinger Leigh, is “a modern sorceress with a unique blend of elegance and theatricality”.
But with Cox’s act, a comedy routine underpinned by self-deprecating humour – he seems just as astonished by his psychic talent as the audience is – less is more. And it’s inspired by a range of performers he admires.
“In the world of magic, it’s Penn and Teller,” Cox says.
“They continue to be an inspiration because they’ve been at the top of their game for 20 years and continue to create and perform new material.
“Outside the magic, Tim Minchin inspires me. He’s constantly brilliant at whatever he turns his hand to. His work ethic, he reinvents himself. He just inspires me to be better at what I do.
“And [British actor] Mark Rylance, I am obsessed with. The way he is on stage is indescribable. What he does; I watch him and wonder – how does he do it?”
In the competitive world of magic – where performers’ repertoires range from levitation to complex escape routines a la Harry Houdini – does Cox worry he’s a bit of a one-trick pony?
“I keep coming back to advice originally given by Jerry Seinfield, but which Ricky Gervais once gave me in an elevator,” Cox says.
‘Nobody knows, nobody cares, just find new audiences’.
“Look at the great entertainers – most of them had one gag and they made a living doing that one thing. Reading minds is what I do, but my act is constantly evolving.
“I’m different from other magicians in that I start with the “big moment” I want to create on stage and work backwards from there.
“I think – what will be fun? What will be amazing? Okay great! Now how the hell do I actually do that?”
The Illusionists – Direct from Broadway, December 6-16 , Canberra Theatre. Bookings on (02) 6275 2700 or www.canberratheatrecentre.com.au