When Houdini opened his 1905 European tour in Newport, Wales, Alan, who stands before us about to offer his spectacle in the same theater, was ten. He wasn’t allowed to see the show, but fixed on the escape artist’s exploits and treated the “Houdini Book of Magic” like a Bible. (Chapters are intermittently demonstrated with sleight-of-hand and advice from the performer’s ghost.) Alan would’ve left school to pursue his passion had his dad allowed.
It was during this booking that Houdini legendarily managed to get out of a locked jail cell, retrieve his clothes in an adjacent, secured cell, dress, and exit the building just as a Chief Constable was smugly announcing to press they’d release him in three days. The protagonist’s tall-tale-worthy Gami (grandfather) is Chief here. Internal inquiry into the Newport Police creates “an ax to grind.”
Eight years later, the now world famous performer returned executing another “amazement,” Alan’s term for what he couldn’t call a trick. “Everything he does takes months of hours of practice and huge levels of skill and to call it a “trick”… well it’s a bit unfair I think.” This time the boy was front and center, in fact, unwittingly, a participant. His angry Gami wasn’t far behind.
Newport born and bred playwright Daniel Llewelyn-Williams has crafted this engaging piece by stitching together real events, some experienced by his recently deceased father, with fictional embellishment. The piece is written in evocative, local syntax. Two appearances by Houdini bookend.
A brief history of Newport (unnecessary), is followed by Alan’s family life, his training and aspirations as a magician and “escapeologist” – even the great Chinese Water Torture Cell was practiced in a 4’diameter pipe. A near fatal attempt by the boy to emulate Houdini on the landmark Transporter Bridge over Bristol Channel is relived before our eyes.“…You can see right through it, looks like it needs a good meal it does…” The tragedy that took place at town docks while building the world’s largest sealock is lucidly observed. (The key word is observed. This section would be more effective with emotion evoked by his father being one of the victims.)
Real events are illuminated in the program. I recommend reading it afterwards so as to take the journey without supposition.
Llewelyn-Williams inhabits Alan from ten to fourteen, his gruff, loving father, his Gami, Yiddish-accented Houdini, and townspeople. Each character has his own completely distinct voice and physical attitude. Transition is fluid. When relating the story he talks TO not AT the audience, focusing on individuals, drawing us in.
Firsthand incidents are made palpable by the artist’s focus and power of suggestion. From childhood excitement with locks “Pick, pick, pick, pick, pick, pick… Click!..OH! IT SAID CLICK! …” to near death experience to a surprising encounter with his hero, one feels almost present in real time. We see him see – often painfully, and feel with the character. Llewelyn-Williams wisely takes his time, provoking our own imaginations.
Director Josh Richards exercises finesse. Expressive gesture feels organic. Nothing comes from nowhere. The small stage is utilized with variety and verisimilitude. Pacing is pitch perfect. This was clearly a symbiotic collaboration. Easily fixable: the first time Houdini appears onstage/to Alan, it’s not clear who he is.
A skilled, entertaining, and imaginative play, foreign in context, but humanistically familiar.
Photos by Sheri Bankes
Flying Bridge Theatre Limited presets
A Regular Little Houdini
Written and Performed by Daniel Llewelyn-Williams
Directed by Joshua Richards
Through December 31, 2017