Theatre Royal, Windsor
Written by Stuart Brennan
Directed by Peter Snee
|Jamie Nichols as Harry Houdini|
The life and times of the legendary escapologist Harry Houdini should have the makings of a great piece of theatre. Stuart Brennan's tale charts the journey of Houdini and his brother Theo, also a magician and apparently the brains behind some of the star's early acts. As charismatic Harry succeeds in life, so the relationship between two siblings becomes strained, with Theo stranded in his brother's shadow.
Brennan's play focuses more upon the fraternal love, rivalry and jealousy between the brothers, than upon Harry's famous death defying acts of derring-do, becoming a commentary upon familiar and potentially troubling aspects of the human condition. Such a grand emotional canvas however demands great insight and Brennan's style remains too superficial to adequately deliver. Audiences want to see and learn more about the great Harry, not the mediocre Theo and in having cast himself as Theo, Brennan does not help matters. Onstage for much of the show, his accent varies (occasionally Irish?), his acting stutters and he and his character lack the gravitas for us to care about them quite enough.
By contrast, Jamie Nichols gives a compelling and credibly believable performance as Harry. His look, poise and presence suggest a man driven by a desire to perform, with his Houdini at times suggesting the character of P.T. Barnum, the gifted American showman who preceded Houdini by some 70 years and who knew just how to humbug an audience. (If only Cameron Mackintosh had cast Nichols in his recent Chichester musical revival...) Technical glitches have beset the production and it's a shame that more illusion is not offered on stage. The few escapology stunts that are presented are entertaining and even though the lack of a strait-jacket routine disappoints, it remains fair to say that Nichols' performance alone does justify the ticket price.
The supporting cast make the best of the two-dimensional characters that have been written for them. Mark Lyminster is the believably ruthless Martin Beck, Houdini's producer, whilst Evanna Lynch (Harry Potter fans will not be disappointed, she played Luna Lovegood in the movies) has a complex role to play as Harry's wife Bess. As Houdini's fame grows, their marriage stumbles and Lynch is offered too much dialog that is little more than clumsy cliche. She makes a good job of it though and offers a look that has a gorgeously classic style with a hint of her character’s contemporary, Keystone Studios’ movie starlet Mabel Normand in her appearance. Katie Johnson's hair and make-up work is impressive.
Brennan needs to drastically re-write this piece with less of the struggling Theo and more of a spotlight on glamorous showman Harry, with lots more magic thrown in too. If his show were filled with classy illusions it would sell out. Somewhere inside the confines of this Houdini there is a truly great play struggling to break free.
Runs until October 12 2013 at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin