Paul Zenon in Linking Rings
Jermyn Street Theatre, London SW1
Reviewed by Ian Keable
Jim Collins was Houdini's principal assistant; Paul Zenon worked during his school boy days in Bill Thompson's Magic shop in Blackpool; Paul Zenon's real name is Collins. Paul has taken these three inter-related pieces of information and weaved together a part autobiographical, part historical, theatrical piece about his own life - along with those of Thompson and Collins. It is a hard show to categorise; certainly not a magic show, there is only one trick (the Linking Rings) of any substance in it; not stand-up, there are laughs but not sustained; not really a play, as although once he breaks into a character piece, in the main Paul is talking directly to us.
Whatever it is, however, it gels. Paul moves deftly back and forth from reciting his own relationship with the nicotine stained hair, Doctor Who-type, magic shop owner to his researches on the elusive Jim Collins, secretly working behind the scenes on behalf of Houdini. The switches between the past and present are done with flair, incorporating clever use of lighting, musical soundtracks, the occasional costume change and a screen. The latter is also used, along with an old-fashioned slide projector, at one point for Paul to display, with all the enthusiasm of an explorer keen to share his latest discovery, rare images of Collins that he has tracked down.
Throwaway magic takes place from time to time during the performance; but it is done to make a point or emphasise an anecdote, rather than attempting to galvanise applause or gasps. The longest sequence of magic effects takes place towards the end when Paul talks about Jim Collins packing up Houdini's tricks after the death of his boss; and his own final visit to Bill Thompson's magic shop after his demise. The audience are smiling at each magical occurrence but pathos is there too - it is a hard act to pull off; and it is to Paul's great credit that he succeeds without it becoming maudlin or overly sentimental.
It is difficult to judge how lay people will react to what is essentially a love letter to a Blackpool magic shop in the 1970s; but for magicians it is a veritable treat. Being reminded how important bricks and mortar once were to youngsters starting out in magic; the unusual, but oddly endearing, mentoring that some were, and still are, lucky enough to have; absorbing intriguing information about Harry Houdini that even knowledgeable magicians are probably unaware of; and above all the realisation that we don't have to rely solely on the 'magic trick' to generate an emotional response from our audiences.
You have two chances today to treat yourself - don't resist it.
Jermyn Street Theatre, 16b Jermyn Street, London SW1Y 6ST
Box Office: 020 7287 2875
Saturday 30th January, 4pm and 8pm
© Ian Keable, January 2016