It’s a weird and wacky, sometimes dark and occasionally trying experience, says the man who brought the band of master magicians together.
“They are liars for a profession, so you have to be very careful around them,” warns Simon Painter, the creative producer of The Illusionists magic show that is due to open in Dubai next Wednesday.
“Dan Sperry, for example, does some awful, unmentionable things backstage. “People hide other people’s animals, there is a lot of messing with props,” says Simon, who surprisingly still has a full head of long hair that has yet to succumb to the stress of stage-managing the bizarre collective.
“For instance, there’s a giant train that features at the start of the show - we make a full-size steam train appear on stage, and the magicians write messages to each other on the train. The audience would never know that there’s this whole undercurrent of awfulness that goes on behind the scenes. They’re definitely an odd bunch, there’s no getting around it: they are very nice, but they are most certainly odd.”
A couple of years ago, Simon, along with world-renowned magician Brett Daniels, got together to search the globe for the best magic men and women in their respective fields. The result is The Illusionists, which sold out Australia’s Sydney Opera House for eight days when it opened at the start of last year, to the tune of more than Dhs11 million in box-office receipts.
The show features an eclectic mix of magicians, from gothic hair-raiser Sperry and world-class escapologist Andrew Basso to mind-bending mentalist Philip Escoffey and magic inventor Kevin James, who seems to be channelling Sonic the Hedgehog villain Dr Robotnik.
Despite having little magical experience himself - he previously worked directing Cirque Du Soleil shows - Simon believed the global magic scene needed to regain its spark after fizzing out in the 80s and 90s.
“There were hundreds of really bad magicians roaming around doing bad magic shows - there are only so many times you can see the same old tricks,” he says. “So it really needed someone to come along.” Simon believes performers such as David Blaine and ‘Mind Freak’ Chris Angel started the revival, with The Illusionists’ two-hour magical extravaganza doing its part to keep the revival going.
“The one difference from what they’re doing to what we’re doing is that they don’t normally do it live,” says Simon. “That is a big difference - if you can do it live, that is where it’s most appealing.” But live magic presents some very live risks and dangers. This became all too apparent for a nervous Simon in The Illusionists’ first-ever show. “Andrew [Basso] is the world’s leading escapologist, and he stands out because he performs the Houdini water torture escape. But he’s the first guy in history to perform it live with no covers. When Harry Houdini did it, halfway through the act they would lower the covers over the tank so you couldn’t see the method he used to pick the locks. It was also to spare the audience, in case he did actually meet a grizzly demise. But Andrew does it with no covers at all. He’s underwater for almost four minutes, picking police handcuffs - it’s amazing to watch.
“On the opening night at the Sydney Opera House, it was obvious to the audience that something had gone terribly wrong and he had not made the escape. So we closed the curtain and dragged him out, and made an announcement to the audience. Luckily, he was OK. It was the act just before intermission, so there was a natural break. After the intermission we brought him back and he did the trick again successfully.”
Basso may have dodged a watery grave, ready to perform the trick again in Dubai, yet the highlight for Simon is a final trick in the show - although it’s probably not as close to the bone as it sounds.
“If I had to pick one act to see before I die, it would be Jeff Hobson performing his ‘egg bag’ routine. Jeff is the comedy guy, The Trickster. He forms an act with a woman from the audience, plus an egg and a bag, and it brings together everything he’s done during the show. It’s one of the funniest things you’re going to see.”
The Illusionists perform at Dubai World Trade Centre from next Wednesday in association with the Alchemy Project. Visit theillusionistsdubai.com  for details