Review: Houdini’s Greatest Escape, King’s Head Theatre

Strong performances can’t mask the shaky material in the spoofy Houdini’s Greatest Escape at the King’s Head Theatre

“It’s not over yet”

Is it the summer of spoof? The 39 Steps is on its way back to the West End and just as soon as a Sherlock Holmes-inspired parody has closed in Islington, a Houdini-inspired one has opened just down Upper Street at the King’s Head Theatre. They’ve swung big on Feargus Woods Dunlop’s Houdini’s Greatest Escape, booking it in for the month of June but have they left themselves locked in a submerged barrel with no chance of escape?

Not quite. A game company of four deliver energy and enthusiasm for days. In the whirligig adaptability of Caitlin Abbott’s set design, Ben Higgins’ Harry and Lydia Piechowiak’s Bess are charmingly good fun as a husband and wife on the run from a dastardly chief of police under the influence of a crooked medium. And Kirsty Cox and Adam Elliott multi-role phenomenally through any number of comic stereotypes as supporting players.

The issue comes with the fact that it isn’t always obvious, or important, that Harry is actually Harry Houdini. There’s nowhere near enough sense of him as “the world’s most famous escapologist” as even the show’s publicity puts it, for there’s not much else to this Harry as written. The script also veers wildly in tone as it ricochets from set piece to set piece, allowing too much bafflement to set in with the inconsistency.

Humour-wise, the show really didn’t do it for me either but I am aware of how subjective that can be – heck, there are people in this day and age relishing the chance to see Jimmy Tarbuck supporting Barry Manilow. This is strictly end-of-the-pier stuff, groan-worthy jokes by the bucketload – which some did appreciate – but there’s also laziness, Scottish accents offered up as something to laugh at without any real jokes delivered in a punishingly long skit early on.

Woods Dunlop also directs and as he conflates madcap comedic antics with frantic pacing, the bombastic delivery of the show hurts it somewhat. There’s so much shouting which soon becomes wearying, even with the volume that haste means too many jokes get lost and there barely seems room for what little magic (courtesy of Pete Firman) there is. Still, the elephant was good.

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