The Victorian era of magic is one surrounded by an air of mysticism and wonder, which still holds an allure for audiences today. With the likes of Harry Houdini and Chung Ling Soo performing in the music halls of London, and with parlour magic proving a popular attraction for the wealthy, there is little wonder that the smoke and mirrors of years past still captures our imaginations. This era has therefore provided rich pickings for double act Rhys Morgan and Robert West, who masterfully adapt these elements to bring a dash of Victorian spectacle to modern audiences.
Performing under the name Morgan & West the duo describe themselves as “magicians, time travelers and all round spiffing chaps” as they take to the stage in full Victorian regalia to bamboozle and amaze. With plans to bring two shows to the Exeter Phoenix on 15th February, the gentlemen were kind enough to sit down with Exeposé Art & Lit to give a quick peek behind the curtain.
In an increasingly modern magic environment, the choice to look back at yonder years for inspiration could be seen as a gamble
When talking with the pair, it seemed only logical, to first ask how exactly they started working together. “So, we both met at university. We are both scientists by trade, but we met doing amateur dramatics,” explains Morgan, “I mean, we both got into magic independently, but we used to do a lot of student theatre, so we worked closely together. When we discovered we both did magic we started spurring each other on. Then in 2008 we decided to put on a show in a little 50 seater in Oxford and then kind of carried on and didn’t stop.” As West then puts it, “The rest is history.”
We then move on to discuss the unique selling point of their act; their Victorian time travelling personas. In an increasingly modern magic environment, the choice to look back at yonder years for inspiration could be seen as a gamble, but one which has undoubtedly paid off. So, how did this idea come about? “We often say ‘I wish there was a better answer than it was the first idea we had’,” states West, “but, it was the first idea we had. I mean, part of it is, it’s fun to dress up, but because we came to magic from a place of doing theatre we wanted to do a theatrical act.” Elaborating on this, Morgan adds, “Part of it was a reaction to seeing live magic on stage where it was someone just stood in a slightly ill-fitting suit, pulling out tricks and cracking terrible jokes. We wanted to do something new and interesting.”
The pair are bringing two very different shows to Exeter in the form of Morgan & West’s Utterly Spiffing Show for Kids (and Childish Grown-Ups!) and Parlour Tricks with the former more aimed at children and the latter at a more adult audience. It only seems right then to ask how the shows differ. “Tonally they are quite different.” states Morgan, “We often say the kids’ show is a kind of Technicolour version of Morgan & West. We’ve always been family friendly, but the evening shows we do are more cerebral.” West then explains, “There are types of magic that don’t work for kids.” Before going on to add, “If you get a kid to think of something and you tell them what it is, for an adult it’s a miracle, but for a kid you’ve just guessed correctly. The kids’ magic has to be bigger and brighter and our characters are much more over the top.”
Kids can be rather impulsive at the best of times, so I thought it only fair to ask if there has ever been any incidents whilst working with the little ones. “No major incidents,” begins Morgan, “I mean, the best thing about doing a kids’ show is that kids are very vocal, as to whether they like something or not. If something is terrible, they will tell you, and they will tell you there and then!” This sentiment however is qualified by West, “Though, actually, there are plenty of adults who have terrible manners in the theatre. There are plenty of people that we have seen talking during our show.” Echoing this, Morgan then adds, “You’re just stood on stage and in theory you can’t see anything, because it’s supposed to be dark, but actually all you can see is three or four faces lit up by bright LED screens. It’s like, come on guys! Can’t you leave twitter alone for an hour?” before jokingly pointing out, “We can! Our phones are backstage!”
“there are plenty of adults who have terrible manners in the theatre.”
We then move on to discussing television. The duo have made a couple of television appearances over the last few years, featuring on Penn & Teller’s: Fool Us in 2011, during which they did just that, fooling the two American heavy weights to earn themselves the chance to perform in Las Vegas. More recently they have appeared on ITV’s The Next Great Magician to present their signature brand of illusion to the nation. In regards to this, I asked how they found the show and the opportunity it presented to speak to international magicians.
“Yes, well the magic community is actually quite small,” explains West, “So, we know most of the performers on the series either personally or professionally. In reality there are lots of magicians in the world, but the number of stage magicians, is pretty small.” Morgan then moves on to explain, “You get to know them pretty quickly when you’re doing it full time.” In regards to the actual making of the show, “It was fun.” Enthuses West, “We enjoyed doing it, though sometimes TV is a pain.” Linking in to this Morgan supplies, “There’s 7am starts and 11pm finishes. You never really know what’s going on. You’re in a room that doesn’t have any natural light for 15 hours. It’s a bit weird.” I can’t help pointing out here that this description also seems to fit a student’s life in exam period, which earns a few sniggers. “But, with that show especially,” continues West, “there was no real difference to doing a gig. We went on, we did a trick and we left.”
The next topic of conversation revolves around the variety of shows they have created. The last show they put together was Morgan & West: A (Sort of) Christmas Carol Magic Show which played throughout November and December in Edinburgh and had more narrative structure than a traditional magic show. “Yes, we did that,” Agrees, Morgan, “and in 2013 we did a show called Grand Adventure, that was a story about Morgan and West. They’re challenges because people quickly get into the idea that they’re seeing a play, so the magic tricks just become special effects.”
Continuing on from this, West adds, “It’s a strange thing, when you’re doing a magic show that isn’t a traditional magic show, that people occasionally go ‘I just thought you’d do more tricks’. We’ve been doing that for years, if we’re doing something else it’s because we want to do something else. The reason we did our Christmas show is because we thought it would be fun to do a show that had a narrative rather than just some Christmas themed tricks.” Rounding this up, Morgan admits, “Occasionally we like to give ourselves a constraint in which to write a show, because we think it’ll be interesting or fun. So, the next evening show we are going to write will probably be séance-y and more supernatural, we’d like to have a play with that.”
Upon enquiring about their possible presence at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, both men readily agree that they will definitely be returning. Morgan goes on to explain, “We’re going back with a new kids’ show and a new evening show. This’ll be our decade there,” before jokingly adding “because we’re both now horribly old.” In asking what exactly we can expect from these new shows, Morgan then elaborates, “The evening show will be a ‘best of’ show. I imagine the trick we did on The Next Great Magician will feature with a few other bits and bobs from the classic repertoire.” He then goes on to explain that the new Kid’s show is going into previews in the next few weeks, “So, we’re just writing that now. Currently it seems to involve me climbing into a lot of boxes.”
“…because we came to magic from a place of doing theatre we wanted to do a theatrical act.”
It’s here that the interview draws to a close. With nine years of performance experience under their belts and five months of touring ahead, the duo still seem to be raring to go. We can’t know for certain what to expect from these two in the future, but one thing’s for sure, we certainly haven’t seen the last of these spiffing chaps.
Morgan & West performing at The Exeter Phoenix on Wednesday 15th February. Morgan & West’s Utterly Spiffing Show for Kids (and Childish Grown-Ups!) at 14:30 and Parlour Tricks at 19:30. For tickets contact The Exeter Phoenix Box Office.