Sunday 8 September 2013

Jamie Nichols - Preparing for Houdini

Jamie Nichols as Harry Houdini

Jamie Nichols, an accomplished young London actor, commences a gruelling national tour this week in the title role of Stuart Brennan’s Houdini, a tightly cast play based upon the legendary American escapologist. Rehearsing out of town before the show opens in Stoke this week, I grabbed a few minutes with Jamie, in between rehearsal sessions and a final lesson in illusions. 

A Londoner born and bred, with three older brothers and two younger sisters, Nichols has predominantly been cast to date in roles that reflect his London background. After a modest break from performance to explore life as a theatrical agent, he was cast earlier this year by Rikkie Beadle Blair as one of the four Prospect brothers in Blair’s contemporary take on broken Britain, Gutted (reviewed by me here).  Set in south London, the play was an honest and at times harrowing account of fractured lives, with Nichols performance being as physically demanding as it was compelling. Nichol’s talks of the regime to prepare for Gutted as having some echoes of what he is currently going through pre Houdini. Interestingly, he also speaks of having to have explored the subtle differences between the two Londons that exist on the different banks of the Thames. A passionate Arsenal supporter, he was the only north London cast member and he talks of having found the research into the different nuances of London life, between north and south, fascinating and distinctive.

His affinity with the capital will have had little to do with Nichols having been cast for this role, for other than when Houdini toured his act to London, the Hungarian born magician had little association with the UK. Notwithstanding, one of Houdini’s toughest on-stage moments ever came about in 1904  when he was nearly beaten in a challenge laid down by the London Daily Mirror that required him to escape from a purpose built set of lock and chains in front of an audience at London’s Hippodrome. Nichols, who had studiously worked on magic tricks and handcuff escapology prior to his audition for the play, was thrilled when he learnt that the auditions were themselves to be held at the legendary Leicester Square venue as a mark of respect to the man.

Nichol’s regime in preparation for the role has been all consuming. With a strict diet and extreme exercise, he has shed a stone in weight and has almost halved his % body fat. He is indebted to dietician/trainer James Farmer who is coaching him through this process, though Nichols has also reflects with some sadness how the totality of the rehearsal process has led to him having to have missed social events including a friends’ wedding, such has been his immersion in the role.

It turns out that immersion is to be the watchword of this all consuming performance. Harry Houdini was famed for his Upside Down stunt that required him to be suspended by his ankles in a glass tank filled with several thousand gallons of water. Nichols’ does not give too much away, but when he hints that he has undergone SCUBA training and that the show will feature an onstage water escape and when he  goes on to sketch out the health and safety planning that has gone into the stunt’s design, it suggests something spectacular. 

In one of those historical quirks that saw gangster Al Capone imprisoned not for murder but for tax fraud, so did Houdini die at 52, not in a disastrous stunt-failure but rather from the complications of a burst appendix sustained from a punch. The play references that tragic blow and nursing a few minor injuries himself Nichols suggests that getting ready for this show in particular has taken a modest toll, though nothing of course that his super-fit physique cannot endure!

The show also features Houdini’s brother Theo, played by Brennan and wife Bess played by Harry Potter’s Luna Lovegood, Evanna Lynch and Nichols speaks warmly of the camaraderie that exists between the entire cast. Working with the writer, he has immense respect for Brennan’s knowledge of his subject.

The five week tour concludes in Ireland, with Houdini being a play that promises to offer a compelling turn from this remarkably talented performer.

Touring from 9th September . For details, visit

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