The Last Act of Harry Houdini begins with an empty spotlight illuminating a modest portion of falling glitter. The mood is contemplative and claustrophobic with an arousing sense of mystery that permeates the whole play. What follows is a masterclass in physical acting from Barry Killerby, who brings Houdini to life with a script that probes deep into the human condition.
Alone in his dressing room, Killerby guides us through the struggles and emotional tumult that Houdini may have suffered at the end of his life. We see the overhanging grief from his mother’s death – a remarkable woman
who Houdini called the ‘guiding beacon of my life’. There is also the psychological disjunct of Houdini’s public identity, as a spiritualist, against his own limitations in failing to resurrect his mother. And, perhaps most poignantly for a Brexit-fearing audience, we see the loneliness and rejection of being a Jewish immigrant in early 20th century US. Houdini’s contemporary public saw nothing more than an escape artist; this play, however, grants us the privilege of glimpsing the authentic man behind the tricks.
Driven by a desire to be known, Killerby portrays Houdini with aching moments of tenderness. He bumbles around a claustrophobic dressing room, minimally furnished with a table and chest, demonstrating a firm sense of physicality that ranges from a weak fragility to intense reenactments of Houdini’s tricks. At the start, the minimalist set forces mime sequences that are a little awkward to observe. Ultimately, however, Killerby – in partnership with his director Ishwar Maharaj – wins us over with a depth of character that surpasses some of Killerby’s over-reliance on the Stanislavskian imagination. Two particularly noteworthy scenes are a vivid recollection of Houdini’s escape from a prison cell and a masterful demonstration of one of his jittery feature films. Intermittent snorts from the audience also shows some appreciation for the dad jokes, which lightens the mood and adorns Houdini with endearing charisma.
Killerby’s competent execution, however, is not matched by the script. While the text is rapid and fast-changing, quickly moving from past to present in split moments, it does not always align with the dynamics of the script’s content. The flashbacks to Houdini’s past are oftentimes jarring or unnatural and may be better served with bolder lighting choices or physical cues. Moreover, a greater narrative thread to justify the flashbacks would help to orient the audience and avoid the sense of an aging man merely doing some awkward role play alone in his bedroom.
In this production, Houdini is a man who has become dissatisfied with his own tricks. Where one-man shows tend to tip into the over-political, it is refreshing to see a show that is built on a firm sense of character and psychology. Killerby marries character and philosophy, challenging his audience and forcing us to confront our own inherent thirst for drama: is it the public eye or Houdini who truly drives him into loneliness and isolation? While this production does not exactly dazzle like the great Houdini himself, Killerby compels us to celebrate the great man’s life with sophisticated intrigue and charm.