Newport, Wales: the turn of the twentieth century, an age of hard graft but abundant hope. A dock worker’s son dreams of betterment; of earning the chance to live life to the full, achieved through his own skill and tenacity. He idolises escapologist Harry Houdini – who, in real life, visited Newport twice – and so, armed with the great man’s own advice for youngsters, he sets out to train himself in the illusionist’s art. Using cast-off props and industrial detritus, he works to perfect his magical “amazements”, youthfully unaware of the lurking peril that will soon invade his life.
With A Regular Little Houdini, actor-playwright Daniel Llewelyn-Williams has penned himself a beautifully evocative script. There’s a sparkling clarity to the detail of his narrative – whether he’s describing the skeletal profile of an industrial landmark, or the haunting sound of a strong man in tears. He also captures the spirit and vibrancy of an earlier age: a time when Newport was a boom town, when dockside labourers were never short of work, and when a touring magician could bring industry to a halt with an audacious publicity stunt.
Except… that isn’t really what the show is about. The Houdini story is arguably just the frame for a very different, very unexpected sub-plot – built around the tale of another historical event, which happened in Newport at around the same time. By rights this shouldn’t work, but Llewelyn-Williams proves skilful enough to draw the two strands together, with ideas and images planted early in the play later acquiring a second and far more poignant meaning.
One terrifying nick-of-time escape stretches credibility a little – and looking back on the play afterwards, I realised that I hadn’t got to know the protagonist’s close family quite as well as I thought I ought to. The ending’s a tad schmaltzy for my taste, as well, leaving the more sombre tone of the middle section rather too easily forgotten.
But the performance is convincing, a couple of action sequences are exciting and tense, and – when the darkness of the inner story does briefly descend – the tale grows visceral enough to match anything from a wartime front-line. The protagonist’s coming-of-age is deftly handled too, with the childish enthusiasm of the earlier scenes gently moderated by maturity as time goes on. Overall then, A Regular Little Houdini is an excellent little play – which should appeal to anyone with an interest in social history, and an appreciation of a story well told.