Home » London Theatre Reviews » Houdini’s Greatest Escape at King’s Head Theatre | Review

Houdini’s Greatest Escape at King’s Head Theatre | Review

With a slightly delayed start (nothing new on press nights, to be fair), there was a moment before the curtain went up when I wondered if Harry Houdini (Ben Higgins) had ‘actually’ escaped, as it were, and we weren’t going to be treated (or subjected) to Houdini’s Greatest Escape after all. The storyline is easy enough to follow, mostly (if not entirely) because it’s all explained to the audience, which is a blessing in the sense that everyone understands what’s happening and there are no ‘WTF’ moments. But it is also something of a curse, as there is, in effect, nothing to think about, nothing to figure out for oneself, and therefore, it’s more than a bit mindless.

Houdini's Greatest Escape at King's Head Theatre. Photo credit: Pamela Raith.
Houdini’s Greatest Escape at King’s Head Theatre. Photo credit: Pamela Raith.

That is, of course, better than being mind-boggling. But I found the show took a while to get going, despite a near-relentless brisk pace. I suppose it had to set the storyline up one way or another and introduce various characters – two of the four actors, Kirsty Cox and Adam Elliott, play eighteen characters between them. Elliott’s ability to shift, sometimes at lightning speed, from one character to another was remarkable to witness, each one with a distinct accent and mannerisms.

The show is, for the most part, extremely silly, and while some punchlines went down well, others were met with silence, and others still with groans, as though they were the kind of ‘jokes’ found in Christmas crackers, deliberately written to unite people in agreement at how terrible they are rather than potentially divide people who have different senses of humour. Houdini’s wife Bess (Lydia Piechowiak) is a complex character, and thankfully not underwritten, and it’s telling that Houdini at one point tells himself to stick to Bess’ plan and trust that she knows what she’s doing (spoiler alert: it transpires she does).

If the story is a mixture of absurdity and adequacy, the show’s greatest strength, at least for me, lies in its demonstrations of magic, with various tricks and illusions performed very convincingly. The staging was inventive when a scene called for it – one scene, in a lake, was particularly impressively done. I’d say more about it, but it would be giving too much away. If anything, there could have been a bit more magic. Still, it’s a fun and charming piece of theatre, performed with enthusiasm by a committed cast.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Ben Higgins – Harry Houdini
Lydia Piechowiak – Bess Houdini
Kirsty Cox – Ma Barker, Office Dibble, Jules, Nelly, Agatha, Officer Cuthbert, Barbara
Adam Elliott–Hardeen, Chief Doyle, Fred Barker, Lloyd Barker, Ronnie Barker, Jerome, Hawker, Ken, Shirley, Penny Bags, Hunter

Feargus Woods Dunlop – Director and Writer
Caitlin Abbott – Set Designer
Connie Watson – Costume Designer and Maker
George Seal – Lighting Designer
Pete Firman – Magic Consultant
Fred Riding – Sound Designer
Guy Hughes – Composer
Sam Archer – Movement Director
Becky Vowles – Production Manager
Heather Westwell – Creative Producer
Anna Eagle – Touring Stage Manager
Donnacadh O’Briain – Dramaturg and Associate Director

Harry Houdini is the world’s greatest entertainer. Just as his death-defying escapology stunts have him, and his wife Bess, on the cusp of a career-defining performance for King Edward, he finds himself framed for murder by a gang of criminals in cahoots with the chief of police. Can Harry and Bess escape the plot and clear their name? and how is their rival, The Superstar Spiritualist medium, Agatha, involved? All will be revealed in this hilarious 39 Steps-esque thriller, played out in New Old Friends’ inimitable, award-winning style of physical comedy, sparkling wit and just a touch of chaos.

King’s Head Theatre
29 May to 30 June 2024


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