Written and performed by Daniel Llewelyn-Williams
The Riverfront Theatre, Newport
Director: Joshua Richards
A Regular Little Houdini is the title of Daniel Llewelyn-Williams’ latest one-man show down at the buzzing Riverfront Theatre, Newport. There is a warm feeling of being ‘where it’s at’, listening to the live foyer music and jostling for coffee as we wait to enter the Studio. The level of expectation at this sold-out event is high. But what to make of this Houdini event escapes me as Llewelyn-Williams strides out onto the stage. This is not so much a play, but a story-telling; a mix of performance and history lesson inspired by the actual visits of Houdini to Newport in 1905 and 1913.
When Harry Houdini first came to Newport he astounded the public by escaping from Newport jail. On his second visit he defied the authorities and leapt, fully bound, into the River Usk from Newport Bridge. Huge crowds turned up to see the spectacle and Llewelyn-Williams relates the event through the eyes of a young boy who helped Houdini out of the water. Llewelyn-Williams transforms himself into a lad who, inspired by Houdini’s first visit, is determined to emulate his hero. We struggle with him as he learns to pick the lock of his grandfather’s police handcuffs; we strain as he clings below the gondola of the newly opened Transporter Bridge; plunge with him into the deep mud of the river and share his grief when his father is lost in the Newport Dock Disaster of 1909. Llewelyn-Williams brilliantly captures the excitement of a young dock lad and cleverly ages as he relates tales and adventures during the intervening eight years between Houdini’s visits.
But is this performance a play? For despite being billed as such, the mix of fact and fiction is delivered as a narration. Llewelyn-Williams commands the audience’s attention, but not through any acting. As he narrates directly to the audience, it is the mesmerizing qualities of his storytelling voice which shackles us to his web of tales. When the hero of the story plunges into the deep mud of the river bank, trapped and slowly drowning, it is spellbinding. It is only when he begins to relate facts; from a newspaper report or the list of lost Newport dockers, for example, that the fetters begin to unwind. The cold recitation of fact dispels the carefully built enchantment and adds little to the performance.
The performance opens with Celtic music composed and beautifully played by thirteen year old Meg Cox. With a blank stage set and minimal props, this is the sort of production that would do well at the Edinburgh Festival. But throughout the event, I am never quite sure if this counts as drama. In the end I think it is a show; a one-man storytelling show rather than a play. And despite those occasional lapses in the narration, it is certainly entertaining. No surprise, then, that the run is a sell-out.