A Regular Little Houdini at Chapter Arts, Cardiff
Storytelling is an entertainment as old as the hills. Predating the written word by millennia, “what happens next?” is still the question on everyone’s lips.
Daniel Llewelyn-Williams brings his much travelled one man show to Cardiff tonight that although billed as a play, is more a story telling with minimal props and a cast of characters all voiced by the writer and actor.
He arrives on stage that’s announced as the Lyceum Theatre, and he’s an early 20th century magic-man in a suit with a suitcase. Newport’s lavish home of entertainment was in Bridge Street, now the site of a mundane Travelodge.
Looking back to where it all began, he was a child of the docks with Houdini as his hero, having been transfixed by the famous escapologist’s first visit to Newport. Studying the entertainer’s self-published Conjurers’ Monthly Magazine until falling asleep at night, the youngster became obsessed with emulating the American’s seemingly unfathomable skills.
Whether having a father and son conversation or being his own grandfather, or the great man himself, Llewelyn-Williams manages to shrink the stage to an intimate space. His conveying of Newport’s working life in the early part of the last century carries a warm conviviality, a comfort alongside a physically hard existence in the industrial docklands.
He celebrates the opening of the famous Transporter Bridge and envisions the modern marvel as a spectacular prop in a dramatic feat of his own. The storytelling becomes more urgent here, as our lad dices with death, taking his deed of daring too far and our hearts are in our mouths. Convincingly acted and supported by claustrophobic lighting, the fear and danger is real to us all.
The desire for thrill and danger in the young teen is naïvely prescient of the daily life and death existence of his father and other workers extending the Alexander Dock. Weaving in elements of the true history of the Newport Dock Disaster of 1909, when skills in escapology meant more to survivors than the flimsy of a repeat theatre booking, the bodies of those who could not break free remain entombed in estuary mud to this day. As modern life races forward for us all, Llewelyn-Williams keeps this tragedy real and alive in his compelling narrative.
The play reaches its peak with Houdini’s second visit when he creates a game of cat and mouse with the police and there’s an unexpected opportunity for our Newport hero to meet the world famous entertainer.
Although Houdini’s visits and reputation provide the foundation for the play, his true role is as the hook on which to hang this fascinating hour spent in a time gone by. Performed on both sides of the Atlantic like Houdini himself, it is particularly poignant for this local audience, many of whom (my family included) would have had relatives living in the shadow of the Transporter Bridge at this time, been aware of both the Dock Disaster and the visiting legend. In this wholly engaging piece of work, Daniel Llewelyn-Williams has succeeded in performing an amazing feat of his own.