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Theatre in Review: A Regular Little Houdini (Flying Bridge Theatre Limited/59E59)

Daniel Llewelyn-Williams. Photo: Sheri Bankes.

A Regular Little Houdini is written and performed by Daniel Llewelyn-Williams, who turns out to be a regular little spellbinder. Actually, "little" doesn't do him justice: He is a king-size stage presence with leading-man looks and a knack for spinning a yarn that is equal parts bildungsroman, historical drama, and thriller. It's an exercise in the Ragtime school of fiction, fitting Alan, the magic-obsessed fictional hero (and his retinue of family and friends) into a scenario built around key events -- including a terrible disaster -- in the early twentieth-century history of the South Wales town of Newport. And, as a bonus, there are appearances by Harry Houdini.

Alan's childhood is marked by a belief in the fantastic even as Newport becomes a demonstration spot for the wonders of modern industry and engineering. He adores his grandfather, known as "Gami," who encourages the boy's fascination with magic, feeding his imagination with tall tales about doing battle with a cyclops who terrorized the Cornish coast. It's all the more disappointing for the boy that Gami, a chief constable, keeps him from seeing Houdini when the great magician makes a memorable appearance in Newport. (In 1905, Houdini, who is performing at Newport's Lyceum Theatre, breaks out of the local jail; adding to the impressiveness of his achievement is the fact that he is naked and has to slip out of one cell and into another to retrieve his clothes. As Alan tells it, in the ensuing publicity, Gami is very nearly sacked for allowing the stunt to take place.) Nevertheless, Alan continues to build his repertory of garden-variety tricks -- he is especially diligent when it comes to picking locks -- working in pubs and on the streets, while continuing to search for an "amazement" of the sort that Houdini made his specialty.

He seizes on the idea for an amazement following the erection of the Newport Transporter Bridge. Alan calls it the "flying bridge," as it consists of a gondola on a dolly that traverses the River Usk, carrying passengers across a span of several hundred feet. He decides to grab onto the dolly, and, hanging more than two hundred feet over the river, make the trip across and back. Suffice to say, it doesn't go as planned -- resulting in the play's most nail-biting sequence -- and only by recalling some of Houdini's escape techniques does he manage to elude death.

Llewelyn-Williams also uses another historical event, the Newport Docks Disaster -- in which the walls of a lock under construction collapse, burying dozens of workers -- to shattering effect on Alan's family, significantly altering the boy's prospects. He also brings back Houdini, who, eight years after his prison escape, pulls off another headline-grabbing feat; once again, he inflames the constabulary with his disregard for the law, but this time Alan intervenes, putting his skills at picking locks to excellent use.

It may seem unlikely that a piece about the power of illusion, featuring several scenes of high action, would work so well in monologue form, but Llewelyn-Williams has a gift for the telling detail. Discussing the wave of immigrants who come to work in Newport, where jobs are plentiful, Alan tells how poor Irish laborers are used as "human ballast," crammed into ships' holds to keep them from floating too high in the water. Looking up at the steel railroad on which the bridge's gondola travels, he marvels, "You can see right through it, looks like it needs a good meal it does." One of the most gripping details of the docks disaster features a young boy who "goes down forty feet on a rope, through a hole the size of a rugby ball, to saw through a three-ton timber, which was trapping a man."

The actor is thoroughly at ease with his story, embodying, in addition to Alan at various stages of his life, his grandfather; his father, a loving parent who, nevertheless, has little use for the attractions of magic; his risk-averse friend, Morris; and Houdini himself, mother-ridden, addicted to danger, and enormously concerned about his destiny. Each of the three main set pieces -- Alan's wild ride on the gondola, the docks disaster, and Houdini's utterly audacious second appearance in Newport -- is a dazzler on its own terms, but the entire sweep of the story is engaging. It's especially impressive since Llewelyn-Williams is working on a bare set with minimal lighting cues and only one nifty costume transition to help him with the final twist, which reveals his fate as an adult. (The piece does have some lovely incidental music, composed by Meg Cox). Joshua Richards' direction ensures that the action moves at a nice clip.

A Regular Little Houdini isn't a Christmas-themed entertainment, but this modestly scaled solo show has great potential as a family holiday entertainment; kids will more than likely find themselves totally caught up in Alan's breathless adventures. For audiences of any age, it's a supremely entertaining tale that brings another time and place to vivid life. I hope that Llewelyn-Williams, having found his way to New York, makes repeat visits; I have a feeling we haven't seen everything he can do. -- David Barbour

(18 December 2017)

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