A Regular Little Houdini
Flying Bridge Theatre Company
One of the most intriguing out-of-copyright books which I discovered on first joining the Kindle generation was Harry Houdini’s The Miracle Mongers—a historical survey of stage illusionism, which goes into sometimes unpleasant detail in explaining how certain effects are created.
It is another volume by the fabled illusionist, however—his Book Of Magic—which is the inspiration for the journey of Alan, the central character in Daniel Llewelyn-Williams’s A Regular Little Houdini, a one-man show which, having previously been a success on the Edinburgh Fringe and at festivals in the USA, is embarking on a Welsh tour, prior to opening off-Broadway.
Rooted in the history of the author and actor’s home town of Newport, the action of the play takes place, for the most part, around 1905, when the protagonist is ten years old. The show begins, however, with the besuited, adult Alan, complete with a limp and a mysterious suitcase, introducing himself and his large family.
There is his beloved grandfather (or Gammy), a retired policeman who is deeply embarrassed when, on Houdini’s first visit to the UK, in publicising an engagement at Newport’s Lyceum Theatre, the great escapologist manages to free himself, with little difficulty, from the local gaol. And also Alan’s dock-worker father, who has little time for his many children, since he has to work all hours to keep them fed.
Inspired by Houdini, the young Alan becomes something of a daredevil, progressing from perfecting card tricks and lock-picking, to more spectacular stunts, or “amazements”, as he terms them. It is the unfortunate culmination of one of these which results in a physical infirmity with which he copes manfully.
Houdini’s well-documented visits to South Wales are not the only verifiable historical references. Gammy’s tales of his Irish forebears’ horrific experiences of being smuggled into Wales at the time of the potato famine have clear contemporary resonances. The building of Newport’s Transporter Bridge—the site of Alan’s unsuccessful stunt—and the 1909 Docks disaster, which also affects his family, also form part of the story.
The show is directed, with admirable attention played to narrative light and shade, by Joshua Richards, but the charm of this hour-long production hangs on the undoubted warmth and affability of Llewelyn-Williams’s portrayal not only of the irrepressible young Alan but also his centred adult incarnation; not to mention of the charismatic Houdini himself, who makes several appearances.
The title seems to promise magic and, while there is a modicum of prestidigitation, the spectacular illusion to which the piece seems to be building never materialises. This is only a minor disappointment, however.
A Regular Little Houdini is a heartening tale of obstacles conquered and aspirations realised.
Llewelyn-Williams was named Best Actor at the 2015 Wales Theatre Awards for his turn as Siegfried Sassoon in Not About Heroes. The press night of A Regular Little Houdini marked the public launch of the 2017 awards; the ceremony will take place in Swansea on 25 February.
Reviewer: Othniel Smith