Paul Dabek Presents Thurston

This is a one-man show with a difference: the actor is also a magician. The characters are Howard Thurston and Harry Houdini. Consequently, the show is part characterisation and narrative, part magic. From the way they whispered to one another, it seemed that some of the crowd had entered expecting a magic show rather than theatre. However, when Dabek bounded up on stage with his hair oiled back ‘20s style and started talking in an American accent it became clear that this was something a little different.

Dabek is actually surprisingly good; his experience on stage has given him the confidence of a well-seasoned actor and he rarely stumbles over lines. His physicality changes subtly as he alters between Thurston and Houdini, but his range of expressions could definitely be improved. Thurston himself is often portrayed with a puppy-like eagerness, even in his later years, which contradicts the heaviness of some of his thoughts.

The accents are fairly rusty, but it is clear that Thurston has a standard American accent, while Houdini is a gritty New Yorker. At the side of the stage is a poster board: on one side is Thurston, on the other is Houdini; when he changes characters, this board is turned over. Seeing the original posters is a nice touch, but it feels like a crutch for Dabek in case his audience isn’t sure who he’s meant to be playing.

The magic itself is definitely worth going to see and, for a free show, this is a no-brainer. Dabek performs an escape act of Houdini’s alongside many of Thurston’s card tricks. Thurston was known as The King Of Cards: here he vanishes cards and makes cards rise from a pack. These segments never fail to draw gasps and applause from the audience and the final trick, which uses an audience member’s watch, is astonishing. However, in these moments of audience interaction the illusion was somewhat broken - commenting on a digital watch as Thurston injected a little humour, but at the expense of the play’s integrity.

The play poses questions: Why is Thurston not famous now, when Houdini is? What was driving magicians during the Golden Age of magic? Where do people go when they die? Through a chronological depiction of Thurston’s life, we see his rise to fame and his attempts to answer these questions. It’s interesting, but in the theatrical parts of the play there’s never a magic moment of awe-inspiring prestige. This show evokes time and place effectively, but the most exciting thing this show has to offer is what Dabek’s best at: the magic.

Reviews by Larry Bartleet

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The Blurb

Howard Thurston was America's leading magician throughout the early 1900s. However his chequered past was far less polished than his performances. Paul Dabek lifts the lid on his early years and recreates Thurston's world-famous act.