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Lunch With
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Lunch with Dynamo, Hutong, London

16 June 2015

Urban illusionist Dynamo makes people laugh, scream and cry. Sometimes he even makes them faint too. Just what would he do at lunch?

I spotted the slight, boyishly framed Dynamo at the foyer of London’s iconic Shard building instantly, but was beaten to the punch when a woman with a 10-year-old boy jumped in and asked if he’d pose for a photo with her son. Everybody grins ear-to-ear as the mum takes the photo. They gushingly thank Dynamo and tell him how much they love the show.

I notice instantly that he has the same sweet, guileless manner that has made his TV show a hit in 180 territories around the world. It’s a cliché but he really is just like he his is on TV, except perhaps that in real life his blue eyes are more striking and he looks a little more grown up.

We step through the doors of Hutong – The Shard’s 33rd floor Chinese restaurant – and I’m transported to another world. The city of London is spread out resplendently before me in an almost 180 degree panorama. The restaurant oozes style and elegance. Lovingly finished with antique and bespoke furniture, the interior creates the feeling of floating high above the hectic pace of the capital, within the sumptuous decadence of old Beijing’s Forbidden City.

We’re joined for lunch by Dynamo’s manager, Dan Albion, and his PR manager Sara Lee. Any concerns I had that the interview would become a business-like PR exercise vanishes amid the sun-drenched window seats, breathtaking views and a friendly meandering conversation. I have to remind myself that I’m here to interview Dynamo, not hang out with him. I notice that Sara calls Dynamo ‘D’ and I take my opportunity to bring the conversation around to the interview.

I ask about his superhero-esque stage name. “If you think about what I do and the meaning of the word, it’s the perfect fit. A dynamo is a small generator that produces electrifying results far greater than its stature. That’s me! I’m a real Dynamo.” Unable to resist the self-depreciating urge to temper the boast, he adds with a cheeky grin, “Or so I’m told.”

At 5” 6’ and slender, Dynamo cuts a modest figure. A long-time sufferer of Crohn’s Disease – a debilitating condition that affects the digestive system – he grew up small and underweight on a “deprived” housing estate in Bradford. Bullied and teased at school for his small stature, like most superheroes, Dynamo grew up as a bit of an outsider.

Upon hearing about his grandson’s struggles at school, Dynamo’s beloved Grandpa taught him some tricks. “He showed me some techniques to use to get the bullies away from me. At first it worked, which served its purpose, but it did alienate me ‘cause people thought I was some weirdo. But over time I learned how to use it to bring people together and that’s when it came to fruition: when it became a performance art, not just a defence mechanism.”

Dynamo dreamed of becoming a professional illusionist, something everyone in his working class family cautioned him against, except his Grandpa. In search of his dream he spent a year in the US where his Grandma lives. “She has 19 award-winning golden retrievers and travels around America showing them. I travelled with her and I’d perform at the after-parties.”

Travelling around the US was inspirational for Dynamo. “I was doing more traditional sorts of illusion shows until I went to New Orleans. I saw street performers for the first time and I realised what the possibilities were. Then I went to Vegas and saw professional illusionists. I came back after a year in the US with a whole new outlook on how I could make a career out of it all.”

With a £2,000 grant from the Prince’s Trust, Dynamo [real name Stephen Frayne] made his first DVD. Showing his shrewd streak, he realised that with such a small budget he’d have to find another way of bringing finesse to the film. “I bought a camcorder and laptop with the money and I’d go and try to hustle my way backstage to meet performers and film with them. In the end I worked out a master plan of how to work the room to get to who I needed to get to. I managed to film with Snoop Dog, Gwyneth Paltrow and Coldplay.”

Since his first homemade DVD in 2006, his chosen career has radically altered the course of his life. The young man, who had to use his “northern charm” and “hustling skills” to get backstage at gigs, now finds doors open easily for him. Although he admits that he still occasionally finds mingling with Hollywood stars at red carpet events “totally surreal for a lad from Bradford”.

The food arrives and the conversation stops dead as we all stare wide eyed at the offerings from the kitchen. Soft shell crab, on a bed of bright red lantern, a glistening crispy duck, a melt in the mouth plate of tofu and for Dynamo a simple bowl of chicken noodles. Everything looks so delicious that we can’t resist sharing our dishes. Dynamo cautiously sticks to his noodle soup and crispy duck as he explains to me the strict dietary regime he has to follow due to his medical condition.

Dynamo’s TV series has taken illusion shows away from “the shiny floors and scantily clad ladies of tradition” into new territory. Dynamo took his trade to the streets of New York, the slums of Mumbai, the heights of Rio and the townships of South Africa. One of the many enchanting things about the show is the amazing way that it illustrates illusion’s way of transcending culture and language.

Visibly delighted to talk about the way people around the world differ in their reactions to what he does, Dynamo’s face takes on a childlike sparkle. “Everybody gets shocked and awed but they express it differently. The craziest reactions are in the US. They are quite comfortable with letting themselves go. In the UK we can be quite reserved: a bit too cool for school. But in the US If they love something they’ll show it and on the other hand if they hate it, they won’t try to hide it at all. In India the people aren’t so vocal but I’ve never seen people’s faces show so much emotion.”

After watching the show, I was unsure what I enjoyed more; the mind-boggling tricks or the reactions of the spectators. I wonder what keeps it all fresh for Dynamo. Without skipping a beat he replies. “Giving someone that sense of wonder that I felt the first time I saw my Grandpa perform.”

“It just makes you feel young again. The difference between adults and children is that children believe anything is possible. They aren’t beaten down by the harsh world around them so when you watch an illusionist perform you feel like a child again. No matter our age or origin, we are always going to be intrigued by it. We are so used to having the answers to everything available at the touch of a button and with a good trick you can’t find the answer to it because it doesn’t exist. People want to be surprised: there aren’t enough surprises left in the world.”

Dynamo has clearly given his art a lot of consideration and reflection. “I think it shows us who we really are. We all have a façade and we all want to be seen in a certain way but this can break through that. I’ve had grown men screaming, women fainting, people bursting into tears. Pharrell Williams, who I think is one of the coolest guys on the planet, ran away screaming and he’s not the kind of person I thought would react in that way.”

Often credited with bringing it back to the top of TV ratings, Dynamo has chosen not to renew his television contracts. Jumping off the wave of street illusion that he started, he states without a trace of bitterness that TV is currently saturated with it and that he wants to try something different. He’s going to put all his energies into an epic 81 date tour. I assume that with those numbers he’ll be going around the world but he replies casually that it’s just a UK tour.

As we come to the end of our meal the conversation once again drifts back into friendly chit chat. Dynamo seems to withdraw into himself before I barely notice him softly say, “I’d like to try something.” In my excitement I fumble over his simple instructions. He takes an ordinary looking marker and draws a cross on my hand. I look on stunned as he somehow moves the cross off one hand and over to the other.

A weird giggle that I’ve never heard myself make before escapes my mouth and I really don’t know what to make of it. I’m dazed as he pulls out a deck of cards and asks me to pick one. Definitely feeling like a child now as he nimbly shuffles the deck, discards a few and produces mine. Before I can stutter in surprise, my card is back in the deck, re-shuffled, cut and then, somehow, the cards move through the air, before being presented back to me for inspection.

The whole table gasps and giggles, as the impeccable waiting staff stand as close as protocol permits with their mouth open wide, exclaiming wildly to each other. Like any superhero worth his salt, Dynamo remains unruffled as he sits back down, casually smoothing out his jumper and resuming his original demeanour. I sit smiling, happy to be totally flabbergasted, reminded of the ear-to-ear grin of the boy downstairs in the foyer. “Don’t worry, I only use my powers for good,” Dynamo adds as he and his trusty sidekicks head back out into the metropolis below. Words: Kaye Martindale / Images: Geoff Brokate

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