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A Regular Little Houdini

Daniel Llewelyn-Williams
Flying Bridge Theatre
York Theatre Royal

Daniel Llewelyn-Williams Credit: Daniel Llewelyn-Williams

In this charming one-man show, writer and performer Daniel Llewelyn-Williams has crafted a love letter to Newport in south east Wales, the city in which he was born and raised.

Whilst researching the history of Newport’s splendid Lyceum Theatre (tragically torn down in 1961), Llewelyn-Williams discovered that the legendary magician Harry Houdini visited his hometown on two separate occasions to perform his “amazements” for the public. This little-known fact inspired him to write A Regular Little Houdini, in which he weaves together the colourful story of the illusionist’s visits with the memories of his own family.

Set between 1905 and 1913—the years in which the eponymous magician visited Newport—A Regular Little Houdini focuses on the fictional character of Alan Williams whose working-class struggles reflect those experienced by the Newport community during the Edwardian period.

Alan is a great admirer of the Hungarian-American magician and wants desperately to follow in his footsteps. However, a career in magic is an unlikely path for a working-class boy who is expected to become a dockworker like his father. Over the course of the play we follow our young protagonist from childhood to young adulthood, sharing his highs and lows. Will Alan realise his ambition of becoming a great illusionist?

Flying Bridge Theatre specialises in staging new works that have historical or educational value, and Llewelyn-Williams’s play provides audiences with an insight into a neglected period of Welsh history. The Newport dock disaster of 1909, which claimed the lives of 39 men, certainly deserves to be more widely known.

On a lighter note, I was delighted to learn about Houdini’s extraordinary feats of daring whilst performing in Wales. In 1913, for example, he jumped into the River Usk from Newport Bridge with bound hands and feet and then proceeded to escape his chains whilst underwater.

With a show like this—one that examines working-class life from a child’s perspective—there is the danger that it will lapse into mawkish sentimentality and nostalgia. However, Llewelyn-Williams manages to avoid this potential pitfall by integrating scenes of familial warmth with moments of genuine pain and despair. Similarly, Alan’s boundless optimism could have been grating, but Llewelyn-Williams’s highly likable performance means that this does not become an issue.

Throughout the show, Llewlelyn-Williams proves himself to be an adept and charismatic performer. He succeeds in showing how Alan matures between the ages of 10 and 18, and breathes life into the cast of supporting characters, most notably Houdini himself.

I was particularly impressed by the scene in which Alan’s most ambitious attempt at escapology results in him being buried alive in the mud. A combination of simple but effective lighting, vivid storytelling and committed acting results in a scene of great claustrophobic suspense that lingers long in the memory.

A Regular Little Houdini is not only a fine display of theatrical storytelling but also an engaging piece of social history.

Reviewer: James Ballands