According to the pre-show publicity, Linking Rings – a new one-man show from illusionist and psychic-debunker Paul Zenon – is notable for not containing any magic tricks at all. Well, you should never believe anything a magician tells you… and sure enough, within seconds of appearing on stage Zenon produces a pint of beer from up his sleeve. But it is true to say that this isn’t a conventional conjuring show; instead, he offers a touching, profoundly personal story of friendship and innocence, intercut with scenes from the life of Harry Houdini.
It’s a deeply affectionate memoir – one to warm the heart of anyone with fond memories of their own childhood. There are kindly reminders of youthful follies (I’m sure I once kept a diary every bit as pompous as the teenage Zenon’s), and an ironic look at a series of adverts from the back of a comic, describing products which seemed so desirable then but are utterly laughable now. Most of all, there’s a Shangri-La quality to Zenon’s description of 1970’s Blackpool, and the magic shop run by veteran Bill Thompson where he took the first steps of his professional career.
Zenon is an extremely personable performer, and his years of experience lend his act an effortless, even casual air. Make no mistake though, this is a technically sophisticated production; as well as the smattering of magic tricks woven into the patter, there’s some lighting wizardry to add extra interest to an already-elaborate set. The most engaging moment comes, though, when Zenon falls back on an old-fashioned slide projector, to illustrate the story which forms the second strand of his show: the relationship between Houdini and Jim Collins, the prop-maker and general fixer who kept his show on the road.
So it’s all very polished as far as it goes, but I’m afraid I’d expected a little bit more. Linking Rings is listed in the theatre section of the programme, and billed as an “exciting change of direction” for Zenon; but in truth, it’s a cosy chat, a very safe and conservative approach to telling his own life story. And while it’s deeply affecting to hear him talk so candidly about the death of a real-life best friend, the same approach begins to creak when he turns to Houdini and Collins, a story which lacks any similar personal connection.
As Zenon makes clear throughout his monologue, he began looking into Collins’ story as research for a play – and that play, I think, would be rather a good one. There are fascinating parallels to draw between Collins’ response to the premature death of Houdini, and Zenon’s regard for his now-lost mentor Thompson. But although Zenon touches on those links, he discusses them as concepts, rather than making us see or feel them. It’s a bit like browsing the pass-notes for a GCSE English text without ever actually getting to read the novel.
So this isn’t quite the show it tries to be, but I enjoyed Linking Rings for what it really is: a personal reminiscence and an act of remembrance, an hour-long tip of the hat from one professional to another. I never met Bill Thompson, but I know what made him special, and I understand why he was loved. And that same warmth of spirit imbues Zenon’s show, the sincerest and kindest tribute imaginable.