Chris Cox: Control Freak

South Street Arts Centre, touring October – November 2008

Reviewed for the Maidenhead Advertiser, 16 October 2008

Chris Cox is a mind reader who can’t read minds. Instead, he controls you to think what he wants you to think, then reads that.

His show combined stand-up style comedy with mind tricks and magic – like Derren Brown, only funnier. He guessed people’s playing cards and hidden drawings, and controlled the whole audience to make up a film – which of course he had already made earlier that day.

Cox was a very likeable and accessible performer. He seemed genuinely excited when his tricks worked, so when they didn’t the audience felt sorry for him instead of feeling short-changed. Usually, though, when a trick seemed to have failed it was actually a set-up for a more impressive feat, and these landed without fail.

Audience members – selected at random by a cuddly ferret in a jumper – participated in every trick. Six people guessed Cox’s mobile number between them and one brave man locked his wallet and phone in a box for the whole show. Luckily, the trick worked and he got them back.

He was sometimes awkward when doing big theatrical reveals, but they were so clever a bit of clumsy stagecraft easily went unnoticed.

Also reviewed for Remote Goat

Chris Cox must be sick of comparisons to Derren Brown. Unfortunately stage mentalism – from guessing the playing card to the seeming mass hypnotism of entire audiences – is currently a very small playing field, and in it Brown is a giant.

It doesn’t help Cox that the mentalist repertoire is almost as small as its catalogue of professional performers. The vast majority of tricks he performs in Control Freak were performed by Brown earlier this year in his own theatre tour, Mind Reader. This is no criticism of Cox. He’s forced to ‘copy’ Brown’s tricks because there aren’t any others available to him as a mentalist.

So why see Cox and not Brown? Cox differentiates himself by being both a mentalist and a stand-up comedian. Where Brown leaves audiences gasping, a seeming supernatural being, Cox builds camaraderie through comedy. The tricks are just as impressive, their inner workings just as impenetrable, but there’s a comfortable sense that Cox is still one of us – a clever prankster, not a sinister mystical mastermind. He may claim we’ve just been “pushed down a psychological cul-de-sac and kneed in the mind-bollocks,” but we’re laughing, not crying.

Cox’s demeanour on stage is youthful, energetic, self-effacing and just uncertain enough to be charming. He’s a geek and he knows it, and this informs the stand-up segments that bracket his tricks. When a trick lands without a hitch he seems genuinely thrilled; when a trick fails, it’s either a deliberate set-up for a more impressive trick, or his stand-up patter kicks in, buying him time to flip the failure around into a win.

The only time his manner lets him down is in his showstoppers. A slight lack of confidence when guessing an audience member’s playing card is endearing, and the vulnerability it demonstrates can be taken as evidence the tricks aren’t rigged. But the big reveals that close the acts require a degree of flamboyance and showmanship the Cox can’t quite muster. When he collapses his folding chairs and reveals that his colour-coded volunteers unconsciously picked their corresponding seat, he hesitates and turns his gaze away; when he plays the DVD (mostly) correctly predicting the audience’s responses to apparently random questions throughout the show, he bites his knuckles and paces nervously around the stage. The tricks still work, but the really big ones need a showman to sell how impressive they are, and Cox isn’t quite there yet.

None of Cox’s flaws are insurmountable: as long as he keeps performing, he’ll keep improving. He may not take over the world, but unlike someone else I could mention, that doesn’t seem to be his goal. He’s happy to play the prankster, and he plays it with panache.

Written by Chris Cox

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