Mr Swallow - Houdini
Soho Theatre, London
Tuesday 10th January - Saturday 18th February 2017
Reviewed by Ian Keable
I've always thought that the reason most magicians get into magic is that they have a desire to perform but don't actually possess any skills. As a generalisation they can't dance, can't sing, can't act and can't tell jokes. That is why so few magic routines contain any of these elements. Magicians justify it by saying it would merely be a distraction, take away from the important part - the impact of the magic. And that argument certainly has validity.
That is not to say that attempts to merge different disciplines have not been tried; but often with mixed success. Both Mike Danata in this country and Darren Romeo in the US combined singing and magic together. Quite a few performers have written plays that incorporate magic into them. I attempted a couple myself but can't say that either was a critical (or indeed financial) triumph. Paul Zenon in Linking Rings had a good go at it recently; as against his enjoyable show, I've seen a few real turkeys.
In some ways I've always felt a bit sorry for magicians who do have additional skills - in that they just haven't found an environment in which to showcase them. What would you do as a performer if you could genuinely sing, dance, act, tell jokes and do magic? Well I have found my answer. You would do a show called Mr Swallow - Houdini; the only drawback being that you have to be as talented as Nick Mohammed.
This genuinely was the best show I've ever seen that seamlessly incorporated so many diverse performing arts. Admittedly it helped having an ensemble company - Nick had two assistants and a piano player; but that took nothing away from his own part. The plot was simple. Mr Swallow, as played by Nick, recreates the life of Houdini, culminating in his famous water torture escape. Along the way he learns how to pick locks, attends a sťance to contact his mother and sees a doctor to determine whether he is fit enough to perform the dangerous stunt. These scenarios provide plenty of opportunities both to perform magic, break into musical numbers carried out with great gusto by the three performers, and involve absurdist, but hilarious, set pieces.
Standard magic routines are given a completely fresh look, particularly so his version of the Chop Cup, a million miles away from Paul Daniels. The quick release escape from a lock is brilliantly enacted. Throw-away bits of magic, such as a silk handkerchief to a cane and production of a bunch of flowers, are done with panache. Big illusions are also in the production. The Sub Trunk is one such, the swift exchange of one person with another, which was first made famous by Houdini as Metamorphosis. And the climax of the show, the escape from the Water Cell, did look genuinely dangerous.
What was also impressive was the fact that we were sitting up in the balcony, with the worse possible angle for some of the illusions. And yet the staging was so good that you really couldn't see anything untoward. The sudden, and unexpected, drop down of a curtain from the ceiling over the Water Cell was both dramatic and magically satisfying.
The whole production was a tour de force. Still time to see it - you won't regret it: www.sohotheatre.com/whats-on/mr-swallow-houdini
Ian Keable, February 2017.