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 through his own skill and tenacity the chance to live life to the full. 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 the ending – while constituting a marvellous final hurrah – does leave the more sombre tone of the middle section rather too easily behind. 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, filled with evocative detail and capturing interest from beginning to end. It should appeal to anyone with an interest in social history, and an appreciation of a story well told.