Review: HOUDINI'S GREATEST ESCAPE, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

The production tours the UK until 30 June

By: Feb. 16, 2024
Review: HOUDINI'S GREATEST ESCAPE, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
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Review: HOUDINI'S GREATEST ESCAPE, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Note: The performance I attended was a preview at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre.

“What you’re about to witness is not magic . . . What you are about to witness is simply a skill.”

Houdini’s Greatest Escape, put on by New Old Friends in association with Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, tells the story of the great escape artists Harry Houdini and his wife, Bess, as they travel to England with the hopes of being invited to perform at King Edward’s Royal Gala. Things quickly take a dark turn when they are framed for murder and robbery by gangster Ma Barker and her two sons, leading to the titular “greatest escape” of Houdini’s life. But how does Agatha, a medium in competition with Houdini for the Royal Gala, play a part in this?

Ben Higgins and Lydia Piechowiak star as Harry and Bess Houdini, taking their act around the globe and wowing audiences with great escapes and magic tricks. Higgins puts on an incredibly strong New York accent, emphasised with phrases like “I’m Harry frickin’ Houdini!” It does get quite tiring, especially as a recording of Houdini’s voice proves that he had a Wisconsin German accent, not a New York accent as many believed. He certainly would not have had the outlandish accent put on during this show.

There are, however, quite a few Yiddish phrases thrown in, a nice reference to Houdini’s Jewish background. I am unsure of whether they would have been used in the time period so cannot comment on their accuracy. Piechowiak is delightful as Bess, a Brooklyn-bred woman who comes up with the plans between the couple. 

Kirsty Cox and Adam Elliott take on a variety of roles throughout the show, playing the remainder of the characters. Cox plays some fun characters including Agatha, Houdini’s rival, and Ma Barker, a gangster who believes Houdini has stolen her deceased son’s glasses. She also plays a clown who has an elephant puppet on her arm, believing it to be an actual elephant. Elliott has roles including the fraudulent Chief Doyle [a reference to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Houdini’s dislike of him?] and Houdini’s brother, who narrates throughout. 

Elliott actually steals the show with the number of characters he plays with wildly different personalities, including one scene in which he plays four different characters having a conversation, including a Scottish couple that makes for some hilarious accents. My favourite character of his was one who labeled himself as an “olfactory explorer,” able to predict things based on scent alone. 

The illusions within the show, taught by Pete Firman, are very impressive and left me wondering not only how they were done but how long the rehearsal process for them was! Some are simpler, like switching out King and Queen cards to represent Harry and Bess escaping, while others are impressive feats, including Houdini’s classic “Metamorphosis of Substitution Trunk” trick done by the couple. 

There are some nice references to the man behind Houdini, Erik Weisz, who took the name Houdini after being inspired by his mentor, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin. But, those who are unfamiliar with Houdini and his background will not be lost, as most references tend to be throwaways that can be ignored.

The show actually works best when it fully leans into its silliness. One scene takes place underwater and a blue sheet is shaken on stage to represent the waves, with Piechowiak taking huge breaths and pretending to swim. It’s simple but fun and got quite a few laughs from the audience. I would have loved to see more of the circus that the Houdinis meet when on a train, as the humour in those scenes was great and quite possibly a highlight of the whole show. 

Unfortunately, even with the great actors and fascinating illusions, the show appears to have trouble deciding whether it is a comedy or a dramatic interpretation of Houdini’s life, switching from heartfelt moments to drunkenly dancing in bars within minutes. The scenes have a tendency to drag, especially the more expositional ones focused on getting the audience up to speed with the plot. 

The show is a fun take on a few days in the life of the famous escape artist, but struggles to find itself between the comedic and serious moments throughout the show. The four actors do a fantastic job, especially Cox and Elliott taking on what feels like dozens of roles, and the set is a character of its own! With a stronger script, it could truly become the greatest show about Houdini. 

Houdini’s Greatest Escape ran at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre from 8 to 10 February. It is now on a national tour that runs until 30 June 2024. 

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