Derren Brown doesn’t have a good word to say about Pastor Benny Hinn. Brown made a TV series a few years back, Miracles for Sale, about evangelical faith healers such as Hinn, calling them shysters. He criticises them again in his show. But alongside the moral disgust sat a showman’s grudging respect, for in his new show Miracle, Brown stages his own laying on of hands – another startling night of Derren-do in which the nation’s favourite mentalist apparently cures a woman’s rheumatoid arthritis, eases a man’s aching wisdom tooth and restores a bespectacled punter’s 20:20 vision. He’s not crediting God, of course, but that scarcely makes the experience feel any less exalted.
I say this as someone who was unable to “go with it”, as Brown urges at the start of his faith healing set-piece. You have to suspend your scepticism, he says: it works only if you want it to work. And so we close our eyes and open our hearts to Brown’s personal development pep talk, which charges us brimful of positivity, expelling the bad stories we tell about ourselves. It sounds too much like high-end hokum to me, but others prove more receptive, and soon a queue forms downstage of audience members reporting lifelong ailments and aches absolved.
Of course you puzzle away furiously, trying to fathom how he does it. Might Metin with the sore tooth be a plant? Maybe Brown did a bit of pre-show Googling about the man in Row C? Not for the first time, I was left a mite uneasy by Brown’s have-cake-and-eat-it attitude towards charlatanism, whereby he criticises others for duping their audiences while withholding any meaningful explanation of how his own tricks are pulled off. But the not-knowing is undeniably a thrill, as indeed it is to savour Andy Nyman and Andrew O’Connor’s atmospheric production and Brown’s expert legerdemain – all hokey health warnings, faux misdirections and (in this faith healing section at least) muttered Biblical invocations.
Peak astonishment comes when – having fixed Catherine’s poor eyesight – Brown summons a self-declared sceptic from the crowd and, with a Satanic flourish, sabotages his ability to read. That moment is run close by the showstopper that ends act one, when several seemingly different tricks (one involving suggestion via Twitter, another involving the page of a book selected randomly by a punter) unite at the same pre-ordained conclusion. The result is simultaneously astonishment, and the sort of synaptic buzzing that comes with having to recap and untangle what it is you’re astonished about.
Elsewhere in the first half, there are routines ranging from the low-level perplexing (guessing which sweeties audience members are guzzling) to the wickedly playful – as when Brown repeatedly pilfers a 50p piece from his volunteer’s hand, despite openly declaring how he’s about to do so. How pliable we are, you might conclude. But also, how powerful our minds, in ways few of us fully understand. That’s what Brown invites us to take from a show in which he tells instructive tales and quotes Epictetus in favour of knowing ourselves and living in the moment. “Life is like a piece of music,” he tells us, “and you’re supposed to be dancing.” After Miracle, my mind at least was doing the jitterbug all the way home.