Performance review: Maho Magic Bar, Chinatown

Japanese magicians illuminate Chinatown.

The bespoke exterior of this pop up venue is festooned with bright neon illustrations of koi, Hello Kitty and playing cards, and as we wander inside, more kitschy Japanese decorations fill the small space. From the ceiling hangs heavy garlands of pink cherry blossoms, there are a row of white lanterns at the entrance and a glistening Lucky Cat ornament has its paw aloft in welcome. The whole scene is gorgeously set up for the magicians in Maho Magic Bar. With the smoke machine in zealous overdrive and the dim lighting creating shadowy apparitions, the night is all ready for merriment and giddy, tipsy fun.

After appearing in Sydney, Adelaide and Darwin, Maho Magic Bar now rolls into Melbourne’s Chinatown as part of the city’s Dusk to Dawn program. It’s presented by Broad Encounters, a company that creates, presents and tours multi-sensory, immersive live productions, and this part show, part bar experience is wonderfully entertaining.

A lot of effort has been made to turn this pop-up into a garish alleyway Toyko bar and, to complete the illusion, there is, of course, a Japanese drinks menu, with cocktails and mocktails available. Attendances are capped because smaller numbers are ideal for this intimate, hour-long event. Guests are invited to sit at various dark corners in separate bars and the magicians are the ones who circulate, each one having about 10 minutes to ply their craft.

That means you can see them right up close as you sip your drink and try to figure out how exactly they pulled the right card out of the pack, or make a coin disappear. Befuddling us at this vantage point is far more impressive than doing so far away on a stage. (So skilful are they at their art that even at such close quarters, a mere arm-length away, I still couldn’t work out how they did it.)

These sleight-of-hand masters all have their specialities, with card games a popular trick, but really all manner of small props are used: a paper bag, some slices of bread, plastic glasses, string, even a jar of Vegemite. Kaori Kitazawa, ‘Kawaii princess of illusion’, Wambi ‘Engineer of eye-popping hardware, Shirayuri, ‘Mixologist of mischief’ and Ryota, ‘the intellectual and psychologist of the crew’ are all seasoned performers, knowing exactly how to banter and tease as they set about astonishing and beguiling us. The bartender, Jun Nakamura, too is pretty nifty with his own set of tricks. And beware if you order a special drink, you can be pulled into the centre of the room for some individual attention. As the MC, Patrick Collins is suitably ebullient and keeps the action moving along swiftly.

At times the noise level is high as competing magicians struggle to be heard above the cacophony of other tables and the squealing delight of the audience – perhaps a small microphone affixed to their clothing would benefit as well as the background music being turned down a notch, but other than this small quibble, Maho Magic Bar is a lot of hedonistic fun, and a wonderful precursor perhaps to a dish of dumplings in Chinatown afterwards.

Read: Ballet review: Swan Lake, Arts Centre Melbourne

The evening sessions are slated for 18+ (mostly likely because of the alcohol), but there are children-friendly shows available in the afternoon on weekends.

Maho Magic Bar
19 Celestial Avenue, Melbourne

Tickets: from $59
Maho Magic Bar will be open until 31 October 2023.

Thuy On is Reviews Editor of ArtsHub and an arts journalist, critic and poet who’s written for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian, The Age/SMH and Australian Book Review. She was the books editor of The Big issue for 8 years. Her first book, a collection of poetry called Turbulence, came out in 2020 and was published by University of Western Australia Press (UWAP). Her next collection, Decadence, was published in July 2022, also by UWAP. Twitter: @thuy_on