Review: HOUDINI'S GREATEST ESCAPE, King's Head Theatre

Raucous comedy cannot break out of the confines of its confused conception and execution

By: Jun. 05, 2024
Review: HOUDINI'S GREATEST ESCAPE, King's Head Theatre
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Review: HOUDINI'S GREATEST ESCAPE, King's Head Theatre Madcap comedies aren’t easy to pull off. The immediacy of theatre can result in story and subtlety being overpowered by spectacle and chaos. You see it in farce sometimes, in pantomime often, but the structural armature developed over centuries grounds those genres in a recognisable world, one we know we’ll have to buy into before the curtain is raised.

New Old Friends’ “Houdini’s Greatest Escape” manacles itself to those problems and forgets the skeleton key. Boxed in, the play’s problems suffocate its humour and interest expires long before its 80 minutes or so runtime is through. There’s only the long haul up the stairs left for us to make our own escape from the overly cramped new King’s Head Theatre.

It’s all a bit of a shame as the raw material is promising. Ben Higgins has plenty of bravado and charm as Harry himself, Lydia Piechowiak brings the brains and the chutzpah as his wife, Bess, and Kirsty Cox and Adam Elliott cycle through a dizzying array of exaggerated comic characters with great energy. Pete Firman’s magic is interesting if infrequent and Caitlin Abbott’s set proves remarkably adaptable.

The problems start with writer, Feargus Woods Dunlop’s, Scooby Dooish script which lacks consistency in narrative and tone. We’re never quite sure where we are as Harry and Bess, framed for a robbery, go on the run. There’s a train journey, a car journey, a walk in the woods and a visit to a theatrical seance and yet they all seem to be back in the police station in the blinking of an eye. There’s much that is cartoonish, but a character gets shot dead at point blank range and another is drowned in frankly distressing detail.

Perhaps least forgivably, Harry’s mission to out the Madame Arcati-like spiritualist, Agatha (the production is unafraid to borrow from other comic sources, so why not Coward?), involves very little escapology. Now that genre of entertainment may be something of a busted flush post-David Blaine, but it did make Houdini’s name, creating something of a meme a century or so before the internet was invented. It seems remiss not to include a little more - for most of the play, Houdini could be anyone.

Review: HOUDINI'S GREATEST ESCAPE, King's Head Theatre

There are laughs, at least for some - but it’s telling that the groans are louder, the bad puns and the bad jokes really best kept for December. Inexplicably, everyone on stage shouts all the time, the pace never eases and accents are deemed to be funny in and of themselves, like it’s still 5.30pm Saturday on ITV in 1974.

You can see the ambition - magic, stand-up, music hall routines, mystery and puppetry all make an appearance. But if we can’t discern a story and we can’t engage with the characters, one’s left in search of the key to unlock the laughs. Houdini could always produce one when needed - this show cannot.   

Houdini's Greatest Escape is at the King's Head Theatre until 30 June

Photo images: Pamela Raith




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