The posters in the foyer of the theatre advertise the show as “An Evening With Psychic Medium Tony Stockwell.” My first reaction is to wonder what other kinds of mediums there are, and how interesting an evening it would be if you were watching one who didn’t even pretend to be psychic. I can imagine it turning into a riot or a lynching, as hordes of middle-aged spiritual types storm the stage brandishing Polaroids of their departed loved ones.
We take our seats in the cramped auditorium as You Are Not Alone by Michael Jackson plays in the background. I can see how it might fit the evening’s entertainment, but it doesn’t stop it being more than a little creepy. The subject matter would be enough on its own, the fact that the singer himself has been dead for a couple of years completes the wrongness. I amuse myself, but not my wife, suggesting other songs they could play before the performance begins. Somebody’s Watching Me by Rockwell, perhaps, or the theme from Ghostbusters.
I look round at my fellow audience members. I seem to be in a different demographic than almost everyone else. Kelly and I seem to be the youngest people present by a considerable distance, and we are hardly in the first flush of youth ourselves. There are a significant number of people who, I’d say, are paying twenty pounds for the possibility of contact with the other side when they could save themselves the money just by hanging in there for another couple of months. Not only that, but having a belief in the hereafter appears compatible with a very interesting range of haircuts. I hope they have better stylists in the spirit world.
I feel uncharitable for thinking that, but it’s easy to be rude about people when they’re abstracts.
The medium takes to the stage, all chirpy charm and bonhomie. He’s dressed in the sort of suit that people who aspire to shop in the local department store would consider sharp – smart enough to look like he’s doing well, not so smart that the audience might not think he’s one of them. It strikes me right from the outset as more about forging a link between the medium and the audience than it is about any link with the spirit world, and watching him at work is a fascinating exercise in psychology.
“I’ve got a man who must have been 64 or 65 when he passed to the spirit world, his name is Tom or Thomas. He’s the father of somebody here, and I’m getting a strong sense that he owned a boat,” he rattles out, fact after fact after fact, eyes rolled up towards the ceiling.
A forest of hands shoots up around me. I fight the surprisingly strong urge to raise mine too and just agree with everything he says. I’m not sure whether it comes from wanting to stick out like a sore thumb or just hoping to belong. (Of course, it might just be that I’m a bit of a troublemaker. Yes, I think it’s probably that.)
“My uncle was about 54, he was called Tom and he loved going on cruises,” says a member of the audience. It appears to be close enough.
The people with their hands raised seem so desperate for it to be them, and he seems so eager for one of them to make a connection, that a certain element of plea bargaining goes on. He plays them all off against each other until he settles for what he thinks might prove to be the closest fit. It’s quite something to watch. And yet there seems nothing calculated about it; he’s personable and funny and he works the audience beautifully.
At one point he’s talking to a woman about her mother.
“I’m getting something about a clock. Something about how she left a clock behind and you got it but someone else in the family wanted it.”
On the big screen behind him the camera shows a close up of her uncomprehending face, even though she has spent the last five minutes nodding and looking genuinely perturbed about some of the things he has got right.
“No. Nothing like that.”
Quick as a flash he replies, “Well I think you’re lying.”
There is a huge laugh in the crowd and I find myself joining in. He has a lovely way about him, telling her that of course he’s joking but she should give it some thought. Maybe there is a clock packed away in the attic somewhere, he suggests, and she nods with fervour. Even when he draws a blank, the audience find themselves thinking that maybe he is right after all. He’s got something.
There is more of the same in the second half and I watch for the patterns that emerge. I find myself reflecting that nobody would describe him as taking risks. The people in the spirit world coming through to reach the ones they have left behind are all Davids, Mikes, Sarahs and Paulines. You don’t get anyone “upstairs”, as he calls it, called Maxwell or Mohammed or Maeve (he has a brief dalliance with a Marjorie but it’s obvious after a few questions that he’s not getting anywhere, and he wisely moves on).
He asks one lady with a mullet and the voice of a navvy whether she’s got any tattoos, and another intimidating looking gentleman whether he knew a heavy drinker called Jim who had spent time in prison and since passed over to the spirit world. When he does this, it’s hard not to feel like he’s playing percentages. But he knows what to say and what not to say. Nobody who’s died is ever nasty or unpleasant. Cantankerous or set in their ways, perhaps, particularly towards the end when they’re in a lot of pain, but always good people. Nobody is ever ugly. They are always beautiful in life and even more beautiful afterwards. To listen to him speak, you would think that the afterlife is just full of gorgeous, wonderful people transmitting constant messages of warmth and loveliness to all the sad ones left behind on earth, the feel-good antidote to every horror movie you have ever seen.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful idea, but can it really be true?
I’m partly here because my first formal engagement with my in-laws was seeing a show like this in Oxford. My sister-in-law’s friend had cancelled and I was dragged along on short notice. I grabbed the opportunity with both hands – to most people’s surprise, I am not a complete sceptic about this sort of thing.
As a kid I did the Ouija board with my friends. We sat round the dining table in my house and watched with horror as the wine glass whipped from letter to letter, all written out on notepaper and Blu-tacked crudely to the knotted pine. Not only did the glass move, but it rotated at breakneck speed as it did. I couldn’t help thinking that if we’d all conspired to try to make the glass travel that fast we would have knocked it over in no time.
“Can whoever is pushing it stop? It’s scaring me,” said one of my friends.
“I’m not pushing it.” I said.
“Nor am I,” said everybody else.
So I know that sometimes just because I can’t understand how something can be physically possible doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work. After all, I have seen the Ouija board, I own an iPhone and I’ve witnessed the meteoric success of certain individuals in the workplace. Not being able to understand everything can be a comforting thing, especially for the people here. You don’t need to be a psychic to see that many of them need comfort.
And there are moments, fleeting moments, in the show tonight when something happens which I do not understand and cannot explain. At one point the medium is talking to a woman about her mother.
“She knows you’ve been wearing her perfume lately. She likes it; she’s happy that it reminds you of her. She knows that you put it on today before you came out tonight.”
The woman, who has been fighting so hard to keep her resolve for the last ten minutes, loses it halfway through that sentence and I see her face crumple. Tears come quickly, and I wouldn’t even want to guess how long she has been holding them back. When you see a moment like that in front of your eyes, it’s difficult for them to stay dry. I think it requires a special kind of heartlessness to see that and to say lucky guess, heartlessness I’m glad I don’t possess.
Another man he speaks to has, it appears, lost someone in his family who was murdered. He is too shell-shocked to offer any information at all in response to a barrage of facts from the medium, he just keeps nodding and saying yes. He seems to want the medium to carry on for as long as he can stand while simultaneously longing for the whole experience to be over. All I can feel is cheated that he’s not keeping his side of the bargain and telling us what happened, but then I catch a look at his eyes on the big screen, screaming while his mouth remains silent.
Towards the end, the medium talks to another woman whose mother died in hospital.
“I’m getting the sense that there was something wrong with her foot. It wasn’t why she was in hospital but there’s something not right. Does that mean anything to you, darling?”
“There was an accident… she lost a foot.”
The woman is almost inconsolable with grief. Lucky guess? I know these people want to believe, but I can’t explain something like that. I don’t think I even want to. I’m not sure either that I want to think about its full implications – for her, for me, for all the people here in the theatre looking for something they never quite got when their loved ones were alive. To close the show, he asks people if they have brought a photo they want him to try and make a connection with. Nearly everybody has, and I find myself aware of what a charmed life I’ve had. Because my friends and my family are all still in one piece, even if my relationships with them aren’t.
And then I curse myself for even thinking that, with my morbid fear of jinxing everything.
At the end Kelly and I climb the stairs and head out into the night, on a quest for a restaurant still open at ten o’clock.
“What did you reckon?” says Kelly.
“It’s just not on.” I tell her, “I’ve been to a few of these now and never once has he got Princess Diana. I’ve half a mind to ask for a refund.”
Deep down though, I know that I’m a bigger fraud than he will ever be. Because what I’m really thinking is what I always think after a show like this: I wish he’d called out the name Edith this time, just this once.