Mr Swallow: Houdini isn’t quite sure what kind of show it is. Part Houdini biopic, part musical, part magic show, part clowning. The result is a slightly baffling hour-long spectacle of comedy, illusion, and Joplin-esque jollity.
This is an ambitious production. Nick Mohammed’s title character Mr Swallow inhabits the role of Harry Houdini, while his two assistants, played by Kieran Hodgson and David Elms, direct him by narrating his life. Mr Swallow is not a magician, and nor is Mohammed: the character playfully acts out his panic as he his cajoled by the other two into performing the same tricks and stunts as the show’s subject. For Mohammed to have mastered these is no mean feat.
Despite being intentionally irritating, and relying a little too much on the easy laughs of putting on a silly voice and being Northern, Nick Mohammed’s performance is the best thing about this show. Mr Swallow is warm and endearing; his tryingness is softened by the mediating presence of the other two characters. There are some nice bits of clowning here, and it’s great to watch Mr Swallow improvise as he tries to antagonise his straight-act supports. There are also a few genuinely impressive bits of light magic, including fast-hand cup-and-ball tricks and a few fun variations on the classic quick-switch.
But unfortunately the comedy and the illusion manage to cancel each other out. The grander tricks, central to the show, are sparsely sown, and the slapstick nature of the piece erodes gravitas from the magic, making everything seem a lot less impressive than it should be. That’s particularly true of the climax: in the absence of dramatic build-up (indeed its deliberate dissolution), there is nothing to make the audience suspend their disbelief of the escape artist’s gadgetry. Regardless of whether the tricks are actually impressive, the show seems to want us to believe that they are not, and so the ta-da's feel self-congratulatory and a little annoying.
The performance is accompanied by excellent pianist Freddie Tapner. Stylistically, the incidental music is a spot-on choice for the turn-of-the-century vaudeville vibe. But the vocal numbers, which afford the piece its musical status, quickly drag on, become repetitive, and start to grate. By the finale they are, again, just annoying, and generally don’t really seem to serve any purpose other than to fill in the gaps.
There is a lot to like about Mr Swallow: Houdini, and I’m sure that existing fans of the character will enjoy the show. It’s actually a fun take on Houdini's biography as well – but somehow the aspects which work separately jar when brought together, and I found myself being pulled in too many directions at once.