“He takes to the stage like a whirlwind, lifts up the audience and doesn’t let it go until he’s ready to send us home completely entertained by his tale and completely overwhelmed by his talent.”
“I’ve seen 44 shows at the Hollywood Fringe this year, and Llewelyn-Williams’ performance of a little boy who learns that the world is always magical as long as we keep believing in magic, is at the very top of my list.”
Earnest Kearney – Bitter Lemons
A Regular Little Houdini
A one man show written and performed by Daniel Llewelyn-Williams.
Suitable for all the family.
A Regular Little Houdini, set in Newport, South Wales at the turn of the last century, is a coming of age story. A tenacious young boy from the docks idolises Houdini and commits himself to a life of magic. But the harsh reality of working class life in Edwardian Britain gets in the way. Regardless, he trains himself to emulate his hero’s magic tricks and escapology on the town’s famous landmarks while his toiling family struggle to accept their son’s eccentricity. As he matures our boy finds himself an integral part of the most significant and terrifying events of British industrial history and his personal journey intersects with the great showman himself. With his hero’s guidance, he fights against conformity, in the mud and the filth, against the irrepressible tide of responsibility, to balance childhood folly and humanity with the cynicism of adulthood. It’s a story of youthful imagination and joie de vivre, with a very real vein of jeopardy brought about by the dangers of daily life in a ruthless Edwardian dock town. It’s a beautiful tale of hope and magic inspired by the author’s own family stories and of course, the real life visits of Houdini to Wales.
Fringe Guru – 4 stars
Newport, Wales: the turn of the twentieth century, an age of hard graft but abundant hope. A dock worker’s son dreams of betterment; of earning the chance to live life to the full, achieved through his own skill and tenacity. He idolises escapologist Harry Houdini – who, in real life, visited Newport twice – and so, armed with the great man’s own advice for youngsters, he sets out to train himself in the illusionist’s art. Using cast-off props and industrial detritus, he works to perfect his magical “amazements”, youthfully unaware of the lurking peril that will soon invade his life.
With A Regular Little Houdini, actor-playwright Daniel Llewelyn-Williams has penned himself a beautifully evocative script. There’s a sparkling clarity to the detail of his narrative – whether he’s describing the skeletal profile of an industrial landmark, or the haunting sound of a strong man in tears. He also captures the spirit and vibrancy of an earlier age: a time when Newport was a boom town, when dockside labourers were never short of work, and when a touring magician could bring industry to a halt with an audacious publicity stunt.
Except… that isn’t really what the show is about. The Houdini story is arguably just the frame for a very different, very unexpected sub-plot – built around the tale of another historical event, which happened in Newport at around the same time. By rights this shouldn’t work, but Llewelyn-Williams proves skilful enough to draw the two strands together, with ideas and images planted early in the play later acquiring a second and far more poignant meaning.
One terrifying nick-of-time escape stretches credibility a little – and looking back on the play afterwards, I realised that I hadn’t got to know the protagonist’s close family quite as well as I thought I ought to. The ending’s a tad schmaltzy for my taste, as well, leaving the more sombre tone of the middle section rather too easily forgotten.
But the performance is convincing, a couple of action sequences are exciting and tense, and – when the darkness of the inner story does briefly descend – the tale grows visceral enough to match anything from a wartime front-line. The protagonist’s coming-of-age is deftly handled too, with the childish enthusiasm of the earlier scenes gently moderated by maturity as time goes on. Overall then, A Regular Little Houdini is an excellent little play – which should appeal to anyone with an interest in social history, and an appreciation of a story well told.
There are multiple excitements for a boy growing up in Newport, Gwent in the early years of the Twentieth Century. They are building the biggest dock in the world there. Then there’s the amazing transporter bridge, which will carry people and vehicles high over the River Usk in a gondola suspended from what seems miles above their heads.
But if you are a boy who’s interested in magic then one event towers above all others, Houdini will be visiting the Lyceum Theatre. Sadly, in order to get publicity for his extravaganza, the escapologist makes a fool of the local police and, if your grandfather is a local policeman, then you must expect to be forbidden to see the show.
Daniel Llewelyn-Williams, who also wrote the script, conveys all the boyish enthusiasm of this world, especially when a plan is hatched in honour of his showman hero.
How hard can it be to ride the transporter bridge, hanging by your hands from underneath? If you’ve trained yourself to a peak of perfection then it’s only a short ride from one bank to the other and back. In theory at least.
As Llewelyn-Williams re-enacts the event I could feel my vertigo kicking in even though he had his feet no higher above the ground than a modest chair.
As well as the bridge this delightful monologue also contains a close encounter with the Usk mud, a moving description of the Newport Dock disaster and a vivid account of Houdini’s second visit to Newport.
Nicely directed by Joshua Richards, who keeps everything flowing with the minimum of setting, Daniel Llewelyn-Williams allows his voice to gradually become older as the evening progresses. It may be only 55 minutes long but it’s a story-telling play full of incident and excitement and it ends with one of the simplest yet most satisfying transformations I’ve ever seen.
Reviewed by: Victor Hallett
Theatre in Wales website.
Wales Arts Review
A trio of actor-written productions tours this autumn, one of which is Daniel Llewelyn-Williams’ one-man show first seen last December. In this review I repeat the commonplace observation, that actors have the advantage in writing for performance. It is not that theatre beginners who arrive from the genres of fiction or verse do not know words, because they do, but they can never know performance in the way of actors; they have lived it, for years.
Daniel Llewelyn-Williams’ solo show naturally comprises dramatic rise and fall. A first dramatic climax simply terrifies, aided by director Josh Richards’ subtle lowering of the lights. Within a performance without interval the author has also fashioned a two-act structure of elegance. He seeds the writing early on with runners so that elements occur late on that refer back. With the voices he has created, the script becomes a unity via counterpoint and inner echo. He also creates a climax that is both a visual coup and an emotional surprise. This is the point that those who fret over “text-based theatre” rarely get, that decent writing is text-unbased, the word being deployed in subservience to the making of visual image.
To reveal too much of the narrative would be to reveal all. Llewelyn-Williams’ character is Alan Williams, born in 1895, animated by the first visit of Houdini to the city’s grandiose Lyceum Theatre. The actor plays the ten-year old boy and leaps across the family group of ten compressed into the grandparents’ tiny house in Pill. Sentiment is avoided with memory of the arrival of the destitute multitudes from famine-gripped Ireland. The Irish are used as free human ballast for the homeward voyage of the coal ships of Wales and the details are harrowing.
“A Regular Little Houdini” is a chronicle of an imagined personage but it also functions as a hymn to a real place. The very plainness, the silty grandeur and the six bridges of Newport seem to evoke a loyalty and a level of artistic response that the Chapter chatterhood has never achieved for its neighbour of a city. The boy Alan is present at the opening of the Transporter Bridge. His ambition to emulate Houdini leads him to practise his own first attempts at escapology in a pipe buried in the Usk mud. The word at the time was “self-liberator.” The great tide is experienced unnervingly at first hand.
A writer of craft also understands metaphor and its use, not in a blaring manner that draws attention to itself. The unique bond between performer and audience is made by allowing the viewers to work it out for themselves. Llewelyn-Williams draws on an episode from history; the 1909 docks disaster and collapse of the South Dock trench entombing 39 men in the estuarial mud. Unlike the exploits of the self-liberators there is no escape from the inexorable rise of the tide. The writing is vivid and unsparing.
“A Regular Little Houdini” is a work of theatre that marries actorly energy and versatility to authorship of assurance and maturity.