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Houdini's Greatest Escape


Harry Houdini is the world's greatest entertainer.

Just as his death-defying escapology stunts have him, and his wife Bess, on the cusp of a career-defining performance for King Edward, he finds himself framed for murder by a gang of criminals in cahoots with the chief of police.

Can Harry & Bess escape the plot and clear their names? And how is their rival, the Superstar Spiritualist Medium, involved?

All will be revealed in this hilarious 39 Steps-esque thriller, played out in New Old Friends’ inimitable, award-winning style of physical comedy, sparkling wit and just a touch of chaos.

Featuring ‘real’ magic illusions designed by TV’s Pete Firman of Netflix’s Good Omens and BBC One’s The Magicians.

Houdini's Greatest Escape Tickets



King's Head Theatre

Sat 15 Jun 2024 - Sun 30 Jun 2024


Houdini's Greatest Escape ON TOUR

Our review on Houdini's Greatest Escape

Houdini's Greatest Escape - Octagon Theatre, Bolton - Wednesday 3rd April 2024 by Leanne Parker-Tyree

Our Rating

Written and directed by Feargus Woods Dunlop (Founder of New Old Friends), Houdini’s Greatest Escape, in association with Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, is a fictional story based on the great Harry Houdini and his wife Bess. New Old Friends has something of a reputation for delivering fantastic touring productions, and this one does not fail to deliver on that reputation. The plot revolves around Houdini, on the very cusp of fame and career defining recognition, and his wife Bess, being framed for murder and having to escape in a comic thriller, which provides more than a fleeting nod to “The 39 Steps.”

The play opens and we follow Houdini and Beth, who have travelled to England hoping to be invited to perform for King Edward at a Royal Gala. Things go catastrophically wrong when they are framed for a robbery and then a murder by gangster Ma Barker and her two sons, in cahoots with the Chief of Police no less! This dark turn of events leads to journey to the literal “greatest escape” of Houdini’s life. Can Harry & Bess escape the plot and clear their names? And how is their rival, Agatha the Superstar Spiritualist Medium, involved? Interestingly, the latter question around the role of the medium is a clever nod to Houdini’s lesser-known real-life feud with false Mediums, which I thought was quite a nice touch and which was humorously referred to many times during the evening.

Ben Higgins (Othello, Kindred Spirits, A Christmas Carol, Much Ado About Nothing) and Lydia Piechowiak (A Murder is Announced, The Libertine, The Snow Queen) star respectively as Harry and Bess Houdini. Piechowiak is utterly delightful as Bess, a Brooklyn-bred woman who comes up with the plans between the couple. Bess is feisty, funny and an absolute force of nature. Higgins is delightful as Houdini, a lovable, large, lively presence on the stage. 

Kirsty Cox (Crimes on Centre Court, Fallen Angels, The Small Hours) and Adam Elliott (The Great Christmas Feast, The Count of Monte Cristo, Around the World in 80 Days) take on multiple roles throughout the show, playing all the characters outside of Harry and Bess. Cox is fabulous, playing characters including Agatha, Houdini’s rival, and Ma Barker, a gangster who believes Houdini has stolen her deceased son’s glasses. She also plays a clown who has an elephant puppet on her arm, believing it to be an actual elephant, which works so much better than it probably sounds! Elliott, meanwhile, delivers an impressive masterclass of a performance, with high-energy and great attention to detail to adapt his performance fluidly and with pure skill. Elliott manages to bring individual personalities and character to the array of roles he undertakes – some literally revolving on the same stage, at the same time, in the same scene! His characters include a Scottish couple, an ‘Olfactory Explorer’, the fraudulent Chief Doyle and Houdini’s brother, who narrates throughout. His performance is the standout of the evening, and the audience lapped it up. The movement of the performance, choreographed by Sam Archer and accompanying music composed by Guy Hughes, unquestionably adds to the overall impact of the production, especially in the underwater scene, which was superbly presented. Further mention goes to the fantastic set design, which is simple, but brilliant. I would argue that the set works almost as hard as the performers, the space being used in ways that were both genius and efficient.

As a huge fan of magic and illusions, I was hoping for some of that and then some, given that the show is, after all based on this legendary illusionist! I was not disappointed in this hope. The illusions, consulted on and taught by Pete Firman (Monkey Magic, The Magicians, The Magic Circle, Champions of Magic) are super impressive and left the inner child in me feeling like Christmas had come early at watching them unfold in front of me! Some of the magic tricks were simpler, like switching out King and Queen cards to represent Harry and Bess escaping, but others were awesome, including Houdini’s classic “Metamorphosis of Substitution Trunk” trick. Thankfully my love of illusion remains intact, and I walked away still wondering how on earth they do it (and secretly loving the fact that I still don’t know, as it is the not knowing that makes the magic even more special!). 

Elements of the performance are incredibly silly, in the best possible way, and these, along with the illusion, are what I loved most about the show. When the actors were leaning into the sillier aspects of the roles, they did this very well and the result was an audience who lapped those moment up, laughing accordingly and enjoying the lightness of it all. Similarly, the audience responded enthusiastically to the illusions taking place before them, a collective gasp here and a genuine wide-eyed ‘How did they even do that?’ reaction there. The show is certainly written and designed to be fun. However, there are real moments of heart interlaced with all that fun and magic and slapstick humour. Without doubt, this is a great performance, full of energy, fun, and magic, but there were one or two moments where the writing felt a little too descriptive as the characters try to keep us, the audience up to speed on what is happening and why and perhaps lose a little momentum in the process.  

Overall, Houdini’s Greatest Escape mixes a liberal sprinkle of melodrama, a splash of pantomime, and a pinch of old school music-hall entertainment with a hefty dose of brilliant physical comedy and a good sprinkling of magical wonderment. It’s certainly inventive, at times captivating and more than a little bit clever. The utilisation of the sets and the tour de force performances of the four, exceptionally talented individuals on stage make this well worth a watch.    



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