Stuart Brennan’s Houdini opened Monday evening and I took my teenage daughter to see the stage portrayal of the famous escapologist the following night. The theatre filled out nicely to Entry of the Gladiators, the theme familiar to circus goers the world over. There was a hush as the lights dimmed on the stage where a man-sized structure, hidden behind shimmering curtains, promised illusion and trickery. The brothers Houdini, Harry and Theo, then appeared and set about wowing us with their ‘Wild Man of Mexico’ routine which involved Theo posing as the escaped wild man, complete with scary mask and chest hair, only for Harry to make him vanish back into his cage with a flash and a puff of smoke.
The role of the audience in this piece of theatre is two-fold. The brothers frequently played to the audience throughout the first half in a manner which was occasionally confusing. We played the part of the audience for the brothers’ magic shows but also the audience for the play itself. There were frequent nods and smiles at the audience which would have been understandable for the elements when they were intended to be performing as magicians, but they also did this (as did other characters) during the ‘back stage’ scenes. This confused what was already a dual-layered role for us and smudged the line between the different realities.
It was while discussing their show backstage that the brothers met Bess, a fellow performer in Coney Island, whose love for Harry was explained by a brief argument between the pair followed by a heavily expository conversation with Theo in which he exclaimed that nothing could come between the brothers. Bess never really extended as a character, if this were a film it would certainly fail the Bechdel Test, and she seemed merely a prop to assist Harry while providing a pair of ears for Theo’s further expository dialogue. I’m not exaggerating here, there was a train journey which involved no mention of location but seemed to be merely a vehicle for a reference to the Titanic, as Theo said he preferred to travel by boat but wouldn’t since the unsinkable ship sank. If we weren’t convinced it was set in the early 20th century, further references were dropped into the dialogue, such as repeated mention of Roosevelt and the admiration of Sherlock Holmes.
The props and costumes were sufficient to conjure the period sufficiently and the American accents were consistent for the most part, Brennan’s Don Corleone impression in the second half notwithstanding. Several of the acts from the brothers’ shows were played out on stage. One of them, Metamorphosis, was a decent, if obvious, attempt to recreate a magic trick. Others, such as the Chinese Water Torture act, were recreated using light and sound. I admit to being a little confused when the audience applauded at the end of this as no actual magic had taken place. But then audience expectations and behaviour is a strange and remarkable science.
Houdini is, for me, a play which tried too hard to deliver the history without pausing to consider the story. Therefore, the characters were not allowed to develop independently of the facts. Dialogue was overly long and lacked tension. There were moments towards the end when some physical aggression raised our pulses briefly and I thought that the performance of Jamie Nichols shined as he played the ageing Houdini, coming into his own with the quiet gravitas of the older character rather than the brash showmanship of the younger man. Brennan, on the other hand, was better suited as the young, hopeful Theo. Lynch’s accent was flawless and she carried the character with confidence. She also seemed a little small in her performance but that might have been down to the sound which was a little quiet. The microphones stopped picking up the voices when the actors turned their heads.
Mark Lyminster’s Martin Beck, the ruthless stage manager, was large and charismatic. He had the most powerful presence on the stage, with a big voice to match. Equally endearing was Ion Patrick Ridge’s Douglas Geoffrey. He managed to eke a lot of humour from his small part as Theo’s assistant. He played this part in a gleefully camp manner and his high pitched voice put us in mind of a small mouse in a trench coat. Once we’d cast him as such we struggled to control our fits of giggles whenever he appeared on the stage. The other performers who appeared from time to time, including an anonymous couple who walked past in the background without mention three times, added a layer of reality to the backstage lives of the magicians. The all too brief cameo appearance of Charlie Chaplin was a welcome treat and the surprise ending was humorous and, I must admit, quite moving despite its oddity.
Houdini is a play which would benefit from relaxation, of the script, and improvisation. The cast is clearly talented and I feel they have the ability to turn their somewhat bland dialogue into something more enticing if permitted to delve further into their characters. As it stands, an audience member behind me actually fell asleep in the first half. I thought the snores were a sarcastic comment on the play until I heard someone gently waking them up. Now, they might have been suffering from narcolepsy. No doubt they were very tired. But honestly, I can’t imagine the real Houdini brothers often had that effect on their audiences.
Houdini continues at Blackpool Grand Theatre until 21st September.
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