Review: A Regular Little Houdini, Chapter Arts Centre

A Regular Little Houdini, Friday 27th January, Chapter Arts Centre. Reviewer: Ellie Philpotts

The art of theatre can be a tricky one to master. For many of us, just the concept of performing would be enough to break out into a cold sweat (then maybe into song once we overcame any initial stage fright). And that’s without everything else that goes into it – design, choreography, stage management…

So you can imagine how challenging encompassing not only theatre, but magic to boot, as well as being a one-man-show, could perhaps be. However, A Regular Little Houdini has well and truly demonstrated juggling all these factors is not only possible – it’s fantastic.

I’m normally found editing Quench Food here in Cathays, but swapped over to both Quench Culture and Canton for the evening, to see A Regular Little Houdini’s Cardiff debut at Chapter Arts Centre, and I’m definitely glad I did. The monologue-style play is touring far and wide – from elsewhere in Wales (Milford Haven, Caernarfon, Denbigh among others), to up north to York, Leeds and Lincolnshire, and it’s even heading for international shores – Adelaide Fringe Festival and New York beckon. However, it’s set poignantly close to home, in Newport, just when the 19th Century moved into the following era. Daniel Llewellyn-Williams, whose talents extend to writing the performance as well, puts on a captivating job of transporting us to back in time, while retaining emphasis on the values still applicable to contemporary society. His character is a dockworker’s son from a poor family, who wants to emulate Harry Houdini but is often restricted by circumstance – most notably the daily details relentlessly churned out by the Edwardian era. It was heartbreaking to hear his take on 1909’s Newport Dock Disaster, whereby Llewellyn-Williams draws on the connotations of being crushed in a truly harrowing way.

Another potential limitation he has to contend with was the fact that the play only runs for an hour. Yet within such a concise timeframe, Llewellyn-Williams manages to envelope a range of emotions, from the standard struggles faced by many a Welsh family of the time, to the determination and pride he experiences upon conjuring up his magical tricks. He proves that long plays aren’t necessarily more effective at taking the audience into that mindset.

One of my favourite features of the performance was the use of magic. These are in no way gaudy or tasteless, and didn’t detract from the deeper themes, but are pivotal for understanding the inspiration behind his drive to resemble Houdini. It is absolutely not surprising that A Regular Little Houdini has won accolades such as The Rogue Shakespeare Award for Artistic Excellence at last year’s Hollywood Fringe – the long-standing cultural icon of Houdini is powerfully immersed in a fresh perspective.

All in all, a fascinating Friday night thanks to an original storyline, convincing take on history and highly-skilled individual. What a way to mark the launch of the Welsh Theatre Awards!

by Ellie Philpotts