Being a magician is a strange life, which Allin Kempthorne from Mountain Ash in Rhondda Cynon Taf knows only too well. He's even taken 'Strange' as his name, performing under the stage-name Professor Strange.
For nearly 30 years Allin has been performing his mix of comedy magic, tricks and illusions for audiences across the UK and often beyond. He has performed on cruise ships, holiday parks and theme parks, for world famous celebrities, plus on television many times including Britain's Got Talent. He's even performed at events for the Saudi royal family, and parties in the home of the American ambassador and the Houses of Parliament.
But now he faces a new and nerve-wracking challenge, representing Wales with the chance to be crowned as the best family entertainer in the whole of the UK.
The UK Family Entertainer of the Year Award is an annual performance competition held every February at the world's largest magic convention in Blackpool, England. Thousands of top magicians from all over the world come together to swap their magic secrets and see who will win the prestigious title. "To be invited to perform in competition at the Blackpool Magic Convention is an incredible honour for me." explains Allin. "Wales has actually never been represented in this competition before, so it's up to me to prove to the UK and international magic communities that we're worthy of being on the map." Due to the Coronavirus pandemic this year's heats were arranged with Wales and Scotland combined into one heat, which Allin won. "So now I've won Wales and Scotland I'm just up against the English regions and Ireland." He grins.
"Being a magician isn't just my job, it's my passion!" Allin explains. "I love designing my shows as much as I do performing them. I obsess over every detail, trying to make every moment that I'm on the stage and each bit of magic exciting, funny and full of wonder. I love adding the music, the costume, the character, the jokes and the surprises, all the things that make a great show. I get to take my audience on an exciting journey with me where they see impossible things happen right there on the stage. It's as big a thrill for me to do as I hope it is for them to watch."
Allin started his performance career in his early twenties. He moved up to London to study at The Circus Space circus school, paying his way by performing juggling street shows in London's famous Covent Garden. There he was talent spotted by an agent and quickly found himself doing shows at theme parks and shopping centres, then touring as a children's magician taking on the stage-name Gizmo. He added to his skills by studying acting at The Method Studio and gaining roles in various television shows, films and TV commercials. More recently he studied with Las Vegas headline magician Jeff McBride and created his current magical character the steampunk and Victorian circus styled Professor Strange, which he notably performed three years ago on the television show Britain's Got Talent. "My Britain's Got Talent performance was pre-recorded." Allin explains. "I was out in Spain performing on a ship when the show went out so I wasn't able to see it at the time. But when I got home a couple of weeks later I found I'd been quite a news story with articles about me in most of the national newspapers talking about my performance and the fact I'd previously performed for Amanda Holden's daughter's birthday party. And of course there were a whole load of enquiries for me to perform at various shows and events, which was fantastic."
However, the last couple of years haven't been nearly as rosy.
Having introduced the character of Professor Strange on television's biggest variety show and gaining contracts to perform as the magical Professor at many top festivals, it all suddenly disappeared in a magic flash.
"When the Covid pandemic first hit in February 2020, performers like me were the first to see all of our work completely dry up. Big events and international festivals just stopped in their tracks. I lost literally every single booking I had in my diary. I'd had performances booked up for festivals around the country and they all had to cancel. I also had corporate events, holiday parks around Wales and England and a television show in Romania, absolutely everything disappeared overnight, everything I'd worked so hard to build up over 30 years. I was used to spending my life on tour, but now I was suddenly back at home in the Welsh Valleys with absolutely nothing lined up, no income and no idea of what to do.
For the whole of 2020 I was practically in shock with no work. The festival, events and cruise ship industries were all completely closed down. As things slowly improved over 2021 I was able to perform at very small events, so I put Professor Strange on the back burner and focused entirely on my children's magic show as Gizmo. I eventually managed to fill my diary with small birthday parties and school shows around South Wales, which I find hugely enjoyable. Mothers are very impressed when they see such an experienced performer turn up to do a magic show at their five-year-olds birthday party! And I think last Christmas I must have performed at practically every primary school in Rhondda Cynon Taf." He laughs. "But I still had none of those large scale events and big earners that I was doing as Professor Strange before the pandemic hit.
Now after two years, the event industry is slowly starting to come alive again. It was one of the first industries to close down and it's one of the very last to re-open, so it's been a very long, slow haul. The larger events are just starting to book me up for this coming Summer, so right now for me to perform my Professor Strange magic show at the world's largest magic convention, and at such a prestigious competition as the UK Family Entertainer of the Year, is a timely opportunity for me to bounce back."
So what does Allin think are his chances of bringing that coveted award home to Wales on February 18th? "It's an exceedingly tough competition. When I look at the five performers I'm up against and realise they're amongst the strongest magicians and performers in the whole UK I get thrilled and terrified in equal measure, especially as I've been surviving the pandemic by performing at tiny birthday parties instead of commanding big stages like the enormous Blackpool Opera House where we'll all be performing. But of course, all of us performers are in same boat. We've all had a very tough ride for the last two years. Plus the idea that I could be bringing that trophy to Wales for the very first time is a major pull. Despite being a magician I can't of course just wave a magic wand, say "Abracadabra" and win the award! I've got to really put in the work and do something amazing on that stage. So I've been busy designing and rehearsing new magic tricks and routines. I'm confident that when I put that top hat on my head, glue on my twirly moustache and get into costume as Professor Strange I can wow not only the audience of international magicians but also the select group of super-magicians who make up the panel of judges. I want that trophy here in Wales!"