Writer: Stuart Brennan
Director: Peter Snee
Reviewer: Beth Walthaus.
“Houdini”, at it’s heart, is an unfortunately deeply flawed production.
Right from the offset, sound problems plagued the production giving the already patchy accents a somewhat ghostly quality. From what could be heard – the book itself seems solid, and interesting (if a little cliché at times) but it appears that nobody informed any of the actors. The first 30 minutes of the production played as though these actors were seeing their lines for the first time – the tone from all of them appeared to be as though they were somewhat bored of the whole experience. Coupling that with a seemingly random Charlie Chaplin impersonator who was supposed to entertain the audience during scene blackouts (that were never truly blacked out – it does ruin the “illusion” somewhat, if we can see the stage-hands literally throwing pieces of the set off-stage…) and sound recordings that often simply drowned out some of the more delicate scenes, you’d be forgiven for believing that this was an amateur production, rather than a full UK theatre touring production. With intricate sets and tricks – this does not seem like a production that would do well as a tour, and it certainly doesn’t.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The production does have some shining moments of potential brilliance, but even they need some work – the final scene of the first act, where Houdini (Jamie Nichols) performs the Chinese water torture cell act is surely the highlight of the production, despite it not being treated as such. Clever lighting was supposed to give the audience members “snapshots” of Houdini escaping the cell, with his worried wife watching on, ready to smash the cell to release him if needs be. At this point, the tension should really be mounting. Instead it climaxed with badly lit shadows of a man writhing within a box, next to a seemingly hysterical woman attempting to yell over the increasingly loud and “dramatic” sounds playing in the background. The final moments, however, are where the true genius of this piece could perhaps be glimpsed. The slow motion effect of Theo Houdini about to strike the cell and release his brother – only to see him safe on top of the cell, having escaped and proved his worth as a performer was a lovely moment.
The second half, when the audience are given a glimpse of the two older, more mature Houdini brothers is a little more scaled back – and all the better for it being so. By now, the actors appear to have settled a little in to the parts, and are able to convey the intricate emotions between brothers at odds. Evanna Lynch as Bess Houdini plays the dutiful wife very well, but the hints at a somewhat emotional relationship between herself and Theo Houndini (Stuart Brennan) is somewhat at odds with the loving wife seeking mediums to speak to her dead husband that we see at the end of the production. While the sentiment behind the ending is touching – it is not executed well. For a moment that is supposed to reaffirm the love between Houdini and his wife, it was so cheesy and over the top that many in the audience actually laughed. In this case, less may very well have been more.
Houdini does need a lot of work. There are no doubts that it could be brilliant, indeed, many of the elements are already there just waiting to be crafted. Perhaps, given a little more time and a theatre to properly base itself in, Houdini could be “great” once more.