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Magician Ben Hart gears up for astonishment at Wilton’s Music Hall

Illusionist prepares to dazzle audiences at a pair of London dates at the Wapping venue in July

Image shows magician Ben Hart, a man with short dark hair covering one eye with a brightly coloured peacock feather
Magician Ben Hart began performing magic as a child

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As he’s a magician, it is – of course – impossible to completely trust anything Ben Hart says.

It’s a grey day in London when I call him on a cruise ship in Mykonos where he’s performing.

He assures me the weather is equally crap off the Greek island.

Maybe it is, maybe he just wants to make me feel better.  

Making people feel things is Ben’s trade.

At 16 he was awarded The Magic Circle’s Young Magician Of The Year in 2007, having started practising tricks as a kid.

One of 300 members of the organisation’s Inner Magic Circle, his career since leaving school has seen him perform all over the world.

He’s been a finalist on Britain’s Got Talent and America’s Got Talent: The Champions as well as teach the likes of Tom Cruise close-up illusions for the latest Mission Impossible.

He’s set to appear at Wilton’s Music Hall in his latest show, Jadoo, with performances on July 15 and 16, 2024.

While we chat about his return to London, he casually mentions he’s just been helping Russell Crowe and Rami Malek accrue skills.

These have been used in their forthcoming movie Nuremberg, for a scene where US military psychiatrist Lt Colonel Dougals Kelley shows Hermann Göring a coin trick.

Images shows a man in a white shirt with sand running through his fingers from an unseen source above
Ben aims to astonish his audiences

Ben Hart – teaching the teacher

“I really enjoy teaching other people,” said Ben.

“Part of my work is consulting, and it wouldn’t be possible for me to be a performer if I wasn’t still teaching because the process really teaches me.

“These people are titans – I’ll be showing them a simple piece of magic and suddenly I’ll see something I didn’t expect – weaknesses or strengths that I can incorporate into my own work.

“With movies, I’ve been really interested in when people blink.

“Actors rarely do it because their faces can take up so much space on a screen that movement can be a big statement that might not be necessary.

“In my own work I’ve realised that I blink all the time – even when I’m doing something sneaky, which is a bit of a tell.

“That’s the kind of lesson you learn. Then, when I’m designing work for other magicians, their creativity informs what I’m doing in a symbiotic way.

 “Any artist has to collaborate at some level.

“By tradition, magic is very solitary and that’s detrimental to it as a form.

“By collaborating, I’ve broken down some of the self-inflicted barriers I’ve made for myself.”

Image shows Ben with his fingers steepled, surrounded by light bulbs
Magician Ben Hart says he finds it easier to interact with an audience when there’s a script

Ben Hart – an outsider

Nevertheless, Ben paints himself as a an outsider.

On the cruise ship he tells me he goes for breakfast with his cap pulled down: “The audience is a bit too captive.

“There’s nothing worse than being famous and having an audience that can’t leave.

“They just want to chat but, like any performer I rely on my scripts and I don’t like environments where I can’t do that”.

It’s part jest, but also part truth.

He paints a picture of a man “trapped” by his own talent and early success – at once fascinated by the research and plagued by the ideas for tricks that will take years to realise or perhaps will never be performed.

Should we take him at face value, or is his apparent honesty all part of the patter?

Image shows Ben Hart with symbols painted on his hands running sand through his fingers
Ben says he aims to unlock people’s sense of wonderment through his performances

why magic is a painful process for Ben Hart

“Making new work can be quite a painful process,” he said.

“What happens is, you think of an impossible idea – anyone can do that – and then you do research to see how you can edge yourself closer to that becoming a trick.

“That process for me now takes longer and longer – it can be years.

“There’s usually no light bulb moment.

“A magic trick is a synthesis of compromises – magic is not possible, so you have to make accommodations and work out how the audience can see them as I want.

“It’s also a process that’s difficult to talk about, because the magician’s canvas is the bit nobody sees – that they shouldn’t even be aware of.

“My job is to host an evening of entertainment – all of my choices are about making sure the audience’s experience is amazing.

“I’m not interested in how hard it is to fool them, it’s more about getting them to a place where they can go on the journey.

“I’m like a tour guide who can take them somewhere where they might be able to experience something amazing. 

“As a magician I want to reveal to the audience a feeling of astonishment which is already inside them.

“Everyone knows we’re capable of feeling wonderment, but it’s infrequent that we get to do it. I create this environment.”

That’s exactly what audiences at Wilton’s can expect when Ben takes the stage, albeit with limited props.

Image shows Ben wearing a white suit jacket with his wrists crossed in shadow play
Ben says he insisted on performing at Wilton’s Music Hall as it’s his favourite venue in London

a special venue

“It’s really one of my favourite venues in the whole world,” said Ben.

“I’ve been lucky enough to perform all over the place, but having a venue that’s old and full of atmosphere is incredible – I really love it.

“It’s also a very good venue for magic in terms of audience sight lines.

“Because it’s so stripped back, there can’t be any feeling that there are people hiding anywhere.

“My show is rooted in storytelling and I hope the magic I do has a bit more power behind it than people might have experienced before.

“I have stripped back all the cheesy Paul Daniels stuff. 

“There are no sequins – I don’t insult the audience’s intelligence by getting them to think that a box is empty or anything like that.

“Coming at it from a contemporary stance, I’ve managed to create the kind of magic show you might have seen 100 years ago, but you would seldom see now.

“Almost everything I do depends on objects borrowed from the audience, so they know they’re legitimate – not fakes. 

“I think magic is an incredibly direct and creative form.

“I can get a gasp of amazement from an audience within 60 seconds of the show starting and that’s amazingly efficient theatre.

“The audience goes on a sort of magical rollercoaster during the show – it’s like a theme park level of emotion.

“An object you thought was there, isn’t, or that something isn’t what you thought it was.

“Magic is a kind of mind-hacking, really playing with people’s perceptions and how they remember things – it’s fascinating stuff.

“It reminds us that you can’t trust everything in the world.

“Magicians can hold a lot of emotional power, which can be neglected.

“We need to remember we’re all living in an illusion and this is a magical thing.”

creating new tricks

As for the future, Ben says he has at least 10 tricks that he’s continuing to slave over, although that number just represents the ones where there’s a chance of completion.

“There are loads of things I’d love to do in front of an audience,” he said.

“Most are miles away from being finished.

“I’ve also got a list of stuff I’ve been working on since I was a kid, which I don’t think will ever be performed.

“I’d especially love to do a version of an old Indian street magic trick called the Mango Tree Illusion.

“A seed is planted and – over the course of a 30-minute show – it grows into a tree, complete with fruit.

“The magician then cuts the mangoes off so people can see they’re real.

“The traditional secret is to swap out the trees when the audience isn’t looking.

“There have been many takes on it and I’ve been working on mine for years but whether I’ll ever solve it, I don’t know.”

key details: Ben Hart at Wilton’s Music Hall

Ben Hart: Live is set to be performed on July 15 and 16, 2024, at Wilton’s Music Hall in Wapping.

Both shows start at 7.30pm and last 90 minutes plus an interval.

Tickets start at £12.50.

Find out more about the show here

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Wapping: How Wilton’s take on The Wind In The Willows stays true to its source

Venue’s festive production for 2022 updates classic to a modern setting and moves Christmas

Author and playwright Piers Torday at Wilton’s Music Hall

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Piers Torday is no stranger to creating festive adaptations for the ancient boards of Wilton’s Music Hall in Wapping.

The children’s author, best known for The Last Wild series, has brought John Masefield’s The Box Of Delights, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and last year Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Old Nurse’s Tale (rechristened as The Child In The Snow) to the east London stage.

November 2022, however, sees him go beyond renaming as he and the team retool Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind In The Willows as a modern Christmas show, complete with strikethrough.

The Wind In The Willows Wilton’s takes the original book’s familiar characters, takes them out of the Edwardian period and carries them into the 21st century, with the plot also pulled further downstream into central London.

“We changed the name partly because it was irresistible not to, but also to reflect the fact that this is a slightly different version of the story from one that people may have seen before,” said Piers.

“It’s always been adapted in period dress, full Edwardian, with colourful waistcoats and police in uniforms – and I’ve much enjoyed those versions – but we wanted to bring things up to date a bit to reflect the world we live in and the audiences that we serve at Wilton’s.

“So we’ve not set it down the Thames in Cookham – where Kenneth Grahame lived – we’ve brought it downstream, where the river goes past Wilton’s, and into the heart of London and the City.

“It’s set now in 2022, Mole lives in Hyde Park and we’ve moved the Wild Wood to the financial district, and we’ve balanced the gender make-up so it’s not just chaps having a jolly good time.

“In doing that, however, we’ve remained completely faithful to the spirit of the book. 

“When it was written, the book was unbelievably modern – full of stuff about motor cars and the characters having very contemporary adventures.

“Increasingly over time those things have become nostalgic, and the spirit of the book is about being very current.”

In addition to altering some details of the setting, Piers has also shifted the timeline around to reflect the season.

Wilton’s festive show is and update of The Wind In The Willows

“The Wind In The Willows famously starts in spring, with Mole doing his cleaning, but in the book, rather madly, Christmas happens two-thirds of the way through,” he said.

 “We’ve rearranged it so that  Christmas takes place at the end – we’ve ordered the events more logically.

“I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s still about four friends and I think most people can recognise themselves or their friends in the main characters.

“Toad Hall will still be taken over by the weasels but part of the fun is for audiences to see what we’ve done with it. 

“It’s been a huge amount of fun, putting it together – no-one has really updated the story before so it’s been the most brilliant opportunity and we’ve done it with lots of song and dance.

“The original book is actually full of songs woven into the story, so we’ve used quite a lot of those lyrics and written some to complement them.

“What many people also forget about this story is that it contains some of the most beautiful descriptions of the English countryside in literature.

“Kenneth Grahame wasn’t really a writer, as such;  he was someone who dabbled in writing and became famous through this book, but he definitely had a poet’s ear for describing our riverbanks, our natural flora and fauna. 

“It’s not very dramatic, but we’ve tried to honour that as we tell the story in the age of climate crisis, so it’s going to be full of real bits of nature.

“We’ve tried not to buy anything new, but to use everything, which is as sustainable and low-impact on the environment as possible. It will look spectacular, but it’s not going to cost the earth.”

For Piers, the task of adapting The Wind In The Willows was more than just about creating a festive show.

“I’ve always wanted to adapt it,” he said. “I write books about talking animals and I date my curiosity in that area to my parents reading me The Wind In The Willows.

“Some of the characters I’ve created myself are probably the result of numerous reiterations that started with Mole or Ratty.

“Even if they’ve not read the book, the audience will probably be aware of the idea of irresponsible Mr Toad, grumpy Badger in his sett or the very shy Mole blinking in the sunlight – it’s part of our national culture.

“To bring this London version of the story to life is a real joy.

“I think talking animals are very appealing because they allow children to experience adult emotions without feeling that they’re having to be little adults.

“In the story the animals live in houses of their own, they have their own occupations, they drive cars, they go to the shops, they go to court, so they do adult things – but there’s something enormously childlike about them too.

“They’re larger-than-life characters.”

The venue’s Christmas show is aimed at kids and adults alike

While The Wind In The Willows Wilton’s is not a pantomime, Piers said it had been written to entertain all ages, including some topical references – a challenge given the current political turmoil.

“When I started writing, the character of Toad was irresistibly like Boris Johnson, but those references have all gone, for the moment,” he said.

“It’s not a panto, so it’s not going to be full of up-to-the minute references to the latest thing or celebrity gossip – but it is a Christmas show and they always have an end-of-term-sketch feel about them

“You want to draw people together. It’s very different to working on a normal play. For many, especially young people, a Christmas show might be the only time they will go to the theatre with their parents. 

“It’s a family outing, so you have to try to include everyone and it’s Christmas so you have to remember people are there to have a nice time.

“To do that you have to have stories and jokes that operate on many levels.

“Children will see the show as a battle, a story with funny scenes of Toad getting cross and losing something, but there may also be references for adults about the cost-of-living crisis or whatever else is going on, to make them feel they’re included in the story too.

“While it’s absolutely terrifying to work on something like this because you can see how it’s received every night, it’s also a great privilege to see those responses. 

“Theatre is irresistible and thrilling because it is something that happens in the moment. That experience – when someone makes it work – is the most special one you can have.”

  • The Wind In The Willows Wilton’s runs at Wilton’s Music Hall from November 24 to December 31, 2022. Performance times are 7.30pm with Saturday matinees at 2.30pm. Tickets start at £13.

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Wapping: How Tom Carradine’s show is simply a good old cockney knees-up

Pianist celebrates six years of sing-a-long performances at Wilton’s Music Hall in east London

Tom is set to perform at Wilton's in January and February
Tom is set to perform at Wilton’s in January and February image Matt Grayson

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Tom Carradine is adamant that he doesn’t have a cockney bone in his body.

But anyone who’s seen him levitate and click his heels, grinning from ear to ear couldn’t fail to doubt that more than a little East End magic courses through his lithe and dapper frame.

A singular individual, clad in sharp vintage clothes, he’s a man perfectly suited to the niche he inhabits – showman, entertainer, crowd pleaser. 

More than that, he’s an education, a smuggler of facts in with the bonhomie, such that audiences attending Carradine’s Cockney Sing-A-Long, will leave having absorbed a smattering of knowledge

A regular Thursday night performer at Mr Fogg’s Tavern in Covent Garden, he’s a regular name at venues across east London and is celebrating six years of sell-out shows at Wilton’s Music Hall in Wapping with gigs on January 20, 22 and February 8.

It all started, of course, with biochemistry.

“I was born in Coventry, in the Midlands, and grew up there,” said Tom. “To cut a very long story short, I was told by the careers advisors not to be an actor or a musician and that I needed to get a proper job.

“I’d always been fascinated by London – I’d pored over maps of it as a kid and knew the Tube lines inside out.

“My mum and dad had trained at the teacher training college in Roehampton, so I was always fascinated by the history of the city – its ghost stories and all that kind of stuff.

“We’d go a couple of times a year to see shows and I’d always wanted to live there since I was tiny.

“I ended up doing a biochemistry degree at Imperial College London, that’s when I moved to the city.”

Tom met West End musicians while at university
Tom met West End musicians while at university image Matt Grayson

It was while at university Tom realised music had a bigger pull for him than test tubes and Bunsen burners. Having always played piano, he became involved with the student operatic society. 

“I met West End musicians that way and gradually I was being asked to play for things like cabaret concerts, auditions and rehearsals,” he said.

“I finished off my degree as joint honours with business studies and then spent time doing fringe theatre and touring as the keyboard player in shows such as Blood Brothers – living out of a suitcase for about eight years.

“Then I decided to hang up my touring shoes and was playing a bit for Les Miserables in the West End. While I was doing that, I was introduced to the London cabaret scene.

Carradine’s Cockney Sing-A-Long was lots of different things coming together. There was my love and fascination for London and old-time music.

“Even though there are no Cockneys in my family, I was involved with Scout gang shows back in Coventry growing up and through that I learnt a lot of music hall and wartime songs.

“Then on the London cabaret circuit and the vintage scene I was starting to develop my own vintage style. I discovered as an adult you can do what you want and wear what you want. 

“I was playing with a 1920s-30s band called Champagne Charlie And The Bubbly Boys.

“We were playing at a vintage festival in Bedfordshire – actually based at the airfield where band leader Glenn Miller took off from on his last flight when his plane crashed and he was lost.

“After the show we ended up in an old Nissen hut, which was a pub, with a battered old piano. Half the keys weren’t working and it was completely out of tune.

“But my friend Dusty Limits, who was hosting one of the stages, tipped me the wink and said: ‘Play some of the old songs’.

“So I did My Old Man Said Follow The Van and Knees Up Mother Brown – all the songs I knew from childhood and took requests.

“The pints kept coming and I kept playing. Then we did the same the night after.

“I didn’t really think about it again until we went back the following year and people saw us on the way and asked if we were doing the sing-a-long again.

“The rest is history. Now I make a full-time living pushing around my mobile piano – Kimberley – and driving my van all over the country.”

Tom wears a mixture of vintage styles
Tom wears a mixture of vintage styles image Matt Grayson

Ticket holders for Tom’s shows can expect a blistering array of sing-a-long classics from British and, often American, pens including tunes so well known over this side of the pond many assume them to be native. 

“It’s a good old-fashioned knees-up,” said Tom, who these days operates from a base in Tonbridge.

“It’s my job to whip the crowd up and then we’ll go through maybe 200 songs you never knew you knew.

“The lyrics are projected on the back wall and it’s all about audience participation – bringing back those memories with tunes people haven’t heard for years. 

“It’s fast-paced – there are medleys – and you can buy a ticket for anywhere in the theatre, but I get to be in the best seat in the house, which is right in the middle of everyone when they sing.

“As much as anything the show is exploration and education as well as entertainment. 

“I like to try and link things together in medley – for example, last time I was at Wilton’s I did one based on tramps with Burlington Bertie From Bow – about a man dressed above his station in life as an upper class toff – echoed by Ralph McTell’s Streets Of London with the old man in the closed down market. 

“I’m a firm believer that songs from the 1890s to the 1950s need to be performed and shouldn’t sit as dusty old sheet music whether it’s the better known ones or the others.

“People will know Daisy, Daisy and I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles, the latter written in America.

“But will they know The Postman’s Holiday or It’s a Great Big Shame? Unless we sing them and pass them along, they’re just going to die out.”

Tom's spats, made to an Edwardian design
Tom’s spats, made to an Edwardian design image Matt Grayson

Audiences can also expect to be delighted by Tom’s wardrobe as well as his moustache.

He said: “When you have facial furniture like this, it’s hard to wear anything but vintage. It’s very rare I’m ever seen outside the house without a collar and tie on, even when I’m putting the bins out. 

“I completely appreciate vintage purists, but I mix and match if only so the really precious pieces get a longer life.

“For this shoot my trousers are 1950s, the spats are modern but to an Edwardian pattern, the waistcoat is 1960s and the jacket is 1920. 

“The collar and shirt are new – thankfully there are companies that still make these kinds of clothes. I wear clothes that make me feel good.”

Performances at Wilton’s start at 7.30pm with tickets from £9-£18.

Audience members should bring a pair of lungs and expect to work them enthusiastically.

Read more: Inject some colour to fight the January blues

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