I had wanted an excuse to visit this mystery mansion for ages, and finally found it, in the form of Jeff's 18th birthday. Thus we found ourselves meandering down some suburban backstreets of London recently, thinking "This doesn't look right, are we really..?"
- when across the street, I spied Laura herself. London, I mean - Mistress of female magic - waiting for some chums to turn up, outside a bland looking doorway. OK - the House of Magic is only open a few days a year to the public. But - they live in London, could come any time, and this particular night, when we are here, is the one they happen to have chosen? Just the perfect kind of weird coincidence, to make us feel right at home. We were there.
Now, I've always felt you can accurately assess the quality of a 'spooky' venue by the quality of their smoke. If there's a loud regular puffing sound, and it disperses every few seconds - 2 out of 10. Here though, Reassurance was quick in coming. As we traversed the entrance (sic) garden by dusk light, we were absolutely wowed by the low lying carpet of foggy vapour clinging to each rockery and weird tableau on the way. It seemed organic, permanent, and otherwordly. We almost didn't want to go in, but then a nice man standing in the doorway - and holding his own head on a tray - bid us welcome.
Inside, sensory overload rather takes over. The Red Room bar and reception area already contained a few quietly excited patrons, eyeing the surrounding gothic decor and artefacts with satisfaction: mirrors, candles, fireplace, automata lurking in dark cabinets. After an efficiently served drink we went through to look around the small cabaret theatre area beyond, and a Lady of the Night invited us to have our fortunes read in the Whispering Chair. The fact that it did so using headphones, did strike me as the evening's only anachronism, but is no doubt necessary for practical purposes. Overall, the venue's ambience is faintly disquieting, but nothing to trouble even a squeamish viewer of Rocky Horror.
Indeed, lurking behind a pillar just in front of us, was a fellow who seemed to have stepped from an 18th century precursor to that show. He later proved to be our escort for the Cellar Tour, a delightfully camp and kitsch few minutes which also featured some genuinely good magical effects, especially for fans (like myself) of Victorian optical effects.
Back upstairs, the buffet was out and being pounced upon, so we tucked in. That nice headless man had now reassembled himself and was performing closeup magic nearby. Over the course of the evening we saw him, a similarly youthful colleague - and a veteran. How wonderfully appropriate to see Patrick Page in these surroundings, and apposite to hear his line as he brings out some half-crowns, pauses, and says "I've been doing this trick a long time". Indeed: but I still can't see the coins going through the table.
Pleasantly fed, and after a hilarious ribald musical warmup act from 'Doctor' Adam Kay, we were into the show. Simon Drake entered rather grandly in a lift, which descends from - where..? Now, since my aim here is to tease rather than tell all, suffice to say he went on to perform what could best be described as a dark-themed parlour show - silent, in his case, though accompanied throughout by powerful music and punctuated by various groans, grunts and gurgles, as well as occasional voice-over. There is also plenty of humour. (To say he 'involves' guests would perhaps be an understatement, especially in the case of one front-row victim.) Nothing is corny or cliched, and even familiar themes are always given a personal twist. Throughout, two excellent female assistants accompany him, who while darkly glamorous, are emphatically also performers themselves and add immeasurably to the whole effect.
After a decent but not overlong period the show comes to an impressive end and the lift re-ascends. More table magic, cake and coffee, and a replete sprawl in the upstairs drawing room, whose walls are a mini museum of magic memorabilia. (Too much alliteration? Mmmmm...). And so, not wanting to feel the evening's magic slowly dribble away, we quit while we are ahead. Jeff is delighted with his birthday present, and it is not hard to see how the House of Magic gets regular repeat custom. Their combination of venue and quality of entertainment is unique. Hmm. Wonder where might be suitable in Bath..?