Friday, January 11, 2013

Ian D. Montfort – Unbelievable, at King’s Place, 10th January 2013

Psychics and mediums make my skin crawl.  It takes a special kind of bastard to stand on a stage looking down at a wide-eyed, incredulous sea of people and then telling them a pack of lies about their dead relatives.  How can you look at yourself in the mirror when your livelihood is pretending to be speaking to someone’s dear old dead Mum and watching their face light up in false hope as they hand you fistfuls of their hard-earned cash?

Ian D. Montfort is one of these characters, but fortunately is precisely that - a character.  Created by Tom Binns, Montford is an incredibly well-observed pisstake of smugger-than-thou psychics like Derek Acorah and Sally Morgan.  He’s got the standard issue beatific aura of calmness, combined with a bitchy tetchiness that he’s not getting quite as much applause as he thinks he deserves. 

But Ian D. Montfort isn’t Binns’ only creation, the first half of the show was done by hospital DJ Ivan Brackenbury.  I found this character utterly excruciating.  Enjoyment of it seems to rest on whether you find repeatedly giving inappropriate dedications to hospital patients funny.  For example: someone has come in with a Spider-Man toy jammed up their arse, so he plays M People’s ‘Search for the Hero’, the chorus of which goes “you’ve got to search for the hero inside yourself”.  Repeat that joke 20 or so times.   

Ivan Brackenbury. 
The only time the character has any real bite is when he dips his toe into the murky waters of the Jimmy Savile scandal.  It’s a dark place to go and for a moment there you sense some genuine anger, especially when he breaks character for a moment to pointedly tell us that he’s been making Savile jokes since 2006.  But for the most part though there’s nothing in the first half that couldn’t have been condensed into a short sketch, the jokes are repetitive and the mockery of hospital radio feels like a low-rent Alan Partridge.

That the first half was so disappointing makes it mystifying that the second half was so great.  The moment Montfort steps onto the stage he feels like a fully-realised, perfectly observed creation.  Binn has lasered in on the certain ‘look’ of the New-Age guru; an ostentatious frilly shirt, a pair of ridiculous dragon embossed jeans, bare feet and a mane of shaggy hair that looks suspiciously over-conditioned.  Every mannerism he makes is brilliantly calculated, especially when he moves his hands into a praying position and furrows his brow, as if trying to decipher what the spirits are communicating. What’s clever about Montfort is that whether when he makes an accurate statement he puffs himself up, looking hilariously smug and pleased with himself.  Conversely,  if he gets it wrong it’s great to see this pompousness getting pricked.   

What elevates this show above other comedians covering the same ground is that Binns is a genuinely great ‘psychic’.  While I have nothing but contempt for the morals of professional psychics, it’s difficult not to have a grudging respect for their cold (and hot!) reading skills.  It’s a strange situation, to be a successful psychic you have to be damn good at a set of complex psychological tricks,  able to think on your feet and improvise and above all walk around with an outwardly unshakable confidence.  But if you’re pretending to be in communication with the spirits, these skills have to remain totally invisible.  You can't admit to fooling people. The performer is, after all, merely a conduit for the spirits, someone blessed with an innate skill – why, they could be you or I!

Montfort neatly sidesteps this pitfall, primarily because throughout we know that he’s playing tricks on us.  Cleverly, he doesn’t attempt a straightforward parody of a psychic show.  After all, nobody wants to be needled about their dead relatives at a comedy show.  The conceit here is that he’s in contact with dead celebrities, ranging from John Lennon to Chopin.  This depersonalises the act and impersonating dead celebrities leads to a hell of a lot of good jokes.  It also allows us to appreciate just how skilled he is at making his readings of the people seem like strange, disconnected facts he’s plucking from the air, as if he's hearing them for the first time.

Ian D. Montfort
As funny as the show is, there’s a ripple of unease that runs through the audience when Montfort makes a series of accurate statements.  There’s no obvious way he could have guessed some of these things and even though we know he’s a parody, it's genuinely spooky.  When I realised that I was feeling genuinely uneasy about how Binns knew so much it made me feel a little guilty.  I’ve always thought very little of the audiences in these psychic medium shows. They always seem so gullible and unable to pick up on the simplest bits of misdirection.  But when you’re in the room with someone doing the trick, it’s perplexing as to how the person on stage could know so much.  I’m a pretty dyed in the wool sceptic, I’ve read about hot and cold reading, I can just about wrap my head around how the statistics will work in the medium’s favour and  how techniques like “shotgunning” an audience works.  If I can be spooked by a parody of a medium, it makes it easier to understand how smart, thoughtful people can be suckered by the professionals.

The only moment that sags a little is when he brings audience members on stage and does an old school mentalist routine where he deduces what word someone from the audience has picked out of a book, which is a perfectly well executed (if slightly played out) trick, but doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the act.  The Montfort character is a satire on New Agey, psychic guru  types, and this dip into mentalism seems too obviously magician-y.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show with as big a gap in quality between its first and second halves as this one.  After sitting with gritted teeth through 45 minutes of Ivan Brackenbury I was contemplating leaving in the interval and getting an early night, but I’m very glad I didn’t.  This was a rare experience - it’s a very strange feeling to be laughing along while simultaneously being freaked out by the tricks Binns pulls.  Being funny and spooky at the same time is an incredibly tricky balance to strike, but in Ian D. Montfort, Tom Binns effortlessly achieves it.

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