Venue: Pleasance Queen Dome
Adrien Brody’s award-winning turn as the eponymous escapist in the excellent 2014 mini-series Houdini was as definitive a biopic performance as Daniel Day Lewis’s Lincoln or Streep’s Thatcher. In a nuanced televisual realisation of an extraordinary life, Brody lent an incredible range to the role and re-energised his career in the process.
A segment of Houdini’s story gets the stage treatment in one-act play Impossible, which finds none of the complexity nor richness of the screen adaptation, opting instead for gentle laughs and over-explained simplification. Houdini (Cox) begs his idol Doyle (Jupitus) to attend his supernatural stage show, only to find himself baffled by the writer’s fixation with the reality of the afterlife. The two form a friendship that falls as soon as it flies, as Houdini goes to grossly self-righteous lengths to discredit any medium that Doyle may throw at him – including Lady Doyle herself – to substantiate his equally dogmatic faith in the spirit world.
Back-stories are trotted out like flat-pack character development (Doyle hasn’t moved on from the death of his son, Houdini was born in rural Hungary but, ahem, made a miraculous escape) in a tonally unclear but sometimes charming script by Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky. Hannah Eidinow’s direction is the real bugbear. The thrust staging is at odds with the realist overtones of the script to begin with, and the use of projected set screens behind a handful of token period signifiers feels lazy. The decision to cram an extra row in front of the semi-circular tiered seating leaves the actors with insufficient space to do anything organic, encased as they are in an immediate circle of watching bodies well lit by the stage lighting. All interaction on-stage feels shrunken to fit a smaller space, and the performances are clearly scaled back accordingly.
Phill Jupitus is surprisingly watch-able as Doyle, playing with a grumpy, naive old-manliness and handling all but his last lines with a well-measured realism. Alan Cox goes the other way and looks worse for it, playing Houdini with the one-dimensional bombast of the cringe-worthy Jeremy Piven in Mr Selfridge. Mrs Houdini is capably played by Milly Thomas, the only cast member who looks to be truly enjoying working her craft, and Deborah Frances-White plays a flimsy caricature of a gentry wife everywhere but for the moment where she fiegns possession by Houdini’s dead mother, when she looks like she’d just rather not.
There are a visible number of occasions where lines are fluffed. That wouldn’t be a problem if the cast were bubbling with enthusiasm and immersed in their roles, but it seems more the product of carelessness than anything else.
Impossible is a case of neat marketing and compelling premise masquerading as promise, and is a victim of its own brevity. Check out Brody’s Houdini for a cared-for telling of the complex tale.