Houdini came to Newport twice in the early twentieth century - not a piece of information you'd find at the top of Houdini's Wikipedia page, but of utmost significance to young Alan, played by Daniel Llewelyn-Williams, who becomes enchanted by the great man’s magic and escapology. In this charming piece, Alan emulates his hero and yearns to break out from the monotony of school and his hard-working father's absence.
flows between characters, never letting the transformation stunt the rhythm of the story
Llewelyn-Williams masterfully turns back the clock to portray Alan’s childhood. After a brief opening from the protagonist's ‘modern-day’ self, he transforms into an energetic ten year old, leaping and bounding about the stage. His youthful exuberance contrasts nicely with his performance as Alan’s larger-than-life, gruff grandfather "Gammy", showcasing Llewelyn-Williams' range neatly. He flows between characters, never letting the transformation stunt the rhythm of the story.
The pacing of the story itself seems a little odd. The first half portrays a hazy, rose-tinted view of Newport, in accordance with Alan's vision of the town: its delightful streets, the fact that all the Irish emigrants would have lived in one particular area when they first moved over, the mere presence of Houdini in the town coating Newport in a good old-fashioned sepia sheen. However, once the action begins, it happens in quick succession: we see Alan grow up, both through tragedy within the plot but also to pack in his teenage years, to reach the final sequence with Houdini's second visit. To race so quickly through so many formative years, after seeing Alan as that ten-year-old for the first forty minutes, adds a rushed feel to the second half of the play.
That's not to say the emotional wealth of the play's second half doesn't come across. A stunt gone wrong is teased out agonisingly slowly; I was on tenterhooks for the duration of Alan's narration. After seeing Llewelyn-Williams jump about the stage, we find him suspended whilst this sequence plays out, a great directorial choice by Joshua Richards. After this comes a heftier gut-punch, accounting real events in the town's history, but still with powerful pathos. Here's where the decision to do a one-man show again comes into its own: we see Alan stood alone, completely isolated from figures of importance in his life. Even Houdini fades next to him.
The play is interspersed with segments from Houdini himself: a nice breather as well as a small showcase of Llewelyn-Williams' magic skills. Overall, this is a play which feels like home cooking: not necessarily the most artful, but definitely a thoroughly warming piece.