I have a tender area of my critical heart set aside for forgotten entertainment genres, with a particular fondness for shows with characters that evoke those bygone eras of the early 20th Century. You know the type; working-class dreamers with loud ensembles, a wildly inconsistent educational background, and a trunk full of interesting props with even more interesting stories behind them. And the undisputed king of this since-lost nation of showmen, scoundrels and escapologists was Harry Houdini, the now almost mythic American magician and escape artist. Houdini, as a Hungarian immigrant become national sensation, served as inspiration for countless feckless imitators from similar origins, and more relevantly, the themes of A Regular Little Houdini, performed by Daniel Llewelyn-Davis of Flying Bridge Theatre Company.
Llewelyn-Davis' story is based partly on experience and invention. He did grow up in the play's setting of Newport in Wales of Irish descent. Houdini did visit Newport twice, and Davis' recounting of the ensuing feud with their police constabulary is highly entertaining. I wonder to what extent hearing his elders' tales as a child influenced his own passion for Houdini-like feats of grace and daring.
As a conjurer of a forgotten era, Davis provides an engaging and sincere account of growing up a miner's son with larger aspirations in the Welsh port city. As an actual conjurer, of either tricks or accents, he's less impressive. The painfully mediocre routines are explained by the narrative of a boy with perhaps more dreams than talent, confirmed by the young protagonist's continued flirtations with death. Davis' attempt at a Houdini accent, however, which seems to jump unexpectedly between Yiddish and early Brooklynite, defies explanation. That said, his native Welsh accent is faultless, and Davis provides excellent characterisations of the other Welsh-speaking roles throughout the performance.
As a final criticism, I also think that if you have a blank space adorned by a single, prominent prop (Davis' "magician's" trunk), you force yourself into the position of making as early and frequent employ of that prop as possible, and I felt that Davis severely underused the staging potential it presented until the final moments of the play.
A Regular Little Houdini combines two wonderful things - a compelling personal tale and turn-of-the-century romanticism - into a great theatre experience. While some of the performance remains manacled by one dubious accent and insufficient prop use, the remainder is a truly liberating "amazement", as the protagonist would put it.