THEATRE AT HOME REVIEW: Mr Swallow Houdini ★★★★

Mr Swallow: Houdini
Soho Theatre, London
Tuesday 10th January - Saturday 18th February 2020

Currently streaming over on Soho Theatre’s On Demand Service, Mr Swallow is a comedy character like no other from the genius that is Nick Mohammed; having since appeared on 8 Out of 10 Cats and Harry Hill’s Clubnite in more recent years, Houdini was the inaugural production that introduced Mr Swallow to the theatrical world when the show ran at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Alongside performers David Elms and Kieran Hodgson, who both provide hilarity throughout with squabbles and over dramatic emotion in trying to revert Swallow back to the present, this ‘self-proclaimed first-ever entirely true auto-biopic’ opens with Mr Swallow announcing to the audience that he will take on the role of the infamous magician Harry Houdini, and perform some his mind-boggling stunts, which in hindsight are all basically a way of stalling for time as he prepares to risk his life with the reowned Chinese Water Torture Cell, which Houdini was prominently known for. As an actual member of the Inner Magic Circle, you cannot help but genuinely be astounded and amazed by Nick Mohammed’s skill as a magician, who will leave you stunned when a simple ball-under-cup trick rapidly goes out of control, with Elms and Hodgson acting as his assistants.

Musical numbers also play an integral part of the production, whether that’s the childhood that Houdini was brought up in within the circus, escaping from some old-fashioned handcuffs, or believing that a member of the audience’s mother (actually portrayed by Kieran Hodgson) is trying to communicate from beyond the grave during a séance. Each number goes off the rails though as you’d expect, especially in the opening number as Mr Swallow sidetracks in a story surrounding a woman he once sat next to at a circus, right up to the point that he actually wonders why pianist Ollie Birch is still playing the underscore; it’s a real laugh-out-loud moment that truly sets up the entire show, and with the show continuing to propel Mr Swallow into a wondering world away from what he’s actually trying to present, thede are the points that you will truly remember the production for.

Some moments however do feel non-committed or strange, especially when you wonder what the whole point of going to a séance was all about, leaving you a little misty as it doesn’t follow through Houdini's arc as a magician, but rather a device to allow Hodgson a moment to shine with a solo number. The climax of the piece, involving the long-awaited Water Torture Cell, also comes off a little flat, as soon after it rushes towards the finish line; of course the trick does allow some rather unnerving suspense as you can see Mohammed come out of character to compose himself whilst knelt inside the clear glass box filled to the brim with water, which we've seen being filled throughout the whole show, but as the box is closed and locked with Mr Swallow submerged with the time ticking away, a large circular curtain falls from the rig to conseal the whole event, leaving you void of that little bit extra magic, and following the trick we do get a stellar final number that you cannot agree does all ‘seem work it’ by it’s climax.

Overall, Houdini is in most parts a genius production with sheer comedy perfection by Nick Mohammed as a Performer and Writer, where even watching through a screen I found myself howling at the silliness presented on stage, but in some rare moments throughout the piece, segments do stray from it’s linear history to become a little messy with subplots and musical numbers, which adds adding too much layering that makes it hard to understand each of the performers vocals, whilst also wondering how it can possibly relate back to the arc of Houdini's impressive back catalogue of magic.


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