Hans Klok’s The Houdini Experience

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Hans Klok’s The Houdini Experience: Hans Klok, the Divas of Magic, Dancers and World-class variety acts. Peacock Theatre, London, 28.2.2012  (JPr)


The Houdini Experience Company credit Roy Beusker

Currently until May the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art is holding a fascinating exhibition I saw last December at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco called Houdini: Art and Magic. Originally organized by The Jewish Museum, New York, this is the first major art museum exhibition to examine the life, legend, and enduring cultural influence of Harry Houdini (1874-1926). The exhibition illuminates Houdini’s evolution from fledging circus performer to internationally renowned escape artist and to muse and inspiration for contemporary artists.

The exhibition has artwork inspired by the magician, historic photographs, event posters, personal effects, archival films of his mesmerizing straight jacket and river escapes. There is various magic apparatus, including shackles, a straitjacket, milk can, handcuffs, and a packing trunk that are presented in the context of their original presentation. There is also a recreation of the ‘Water Torture Cell’ (much of the original was destroyed in a fire in 1995) as well as two of Houdini’s private travel diaries.

The exhibit also features a segment on Spiritualism, the belief that spirits are among us and can be communicated with. It shows how during the 1920’s, Harry Houdini undertook a well-publicised campaign to expose fraudulent mediums. After his death in 1926, his wife Bess, tried annually for ten years to contact him through séances, but to no avail.

I have always enjoyed magic and found myself intrigued by the life of one of its greatest exponents. Nothing could hold Houdini and he became one of the twentieth-century’s most legendary performers with a talent for self-promotion and provocation. This immigrant son of a poor Hungarian rabbi he rocketed to international fame and grabbed front page headlines with his gripping theatrical presentations and heart-stopping outdoor spectacles – often dangling high above huge crowds or being lowered dramatically into an icy river locked inside a crate.

One of Houdini’s most famous stage illusions was ‘Metamorphosis’ that was originally invented by the English stage magician, John Nevil Maskelyne. Here an assistant (Houdini employed his wife Bess) is locked inside a large box or trunk, often after being restrained with handcuffs, ropes, bags, etc. The magician stands on the trunk and holds a curtain up to momentarily conceal his entire body. When the curtain is lowered, it is now revealed to be the assistant standing atop the box, the magician and assistant having changed places instantaneously. When the box is opened, it is shown to contain the magician, restrained as the assistant had been. In some acts, the magician is locked in the box first, and then appears standing atop the box.

Houdini’s enduring influence is evident and I had seen ‘Metamorphosis’ performed live only a few days earlier in Las Vegas during Dirk Arthur’s Wild Magic show. Clearly a celebrated magician fallen on slightly hard times (think of Paul Daniels) and relegated to a small minor showroom, this was still a show to treasure because of his big cats that he helps conserve. The magic was typical of these types of shows but what set it apart was those beautiful cats. We were literally only a few feet away from them at any given time.

What a surprise with the arrival of spring to see a show called The Houdini Experience at the Peacock Theatre presented by Dutch magician – a charismatic and extravagantly blond Vegas performer Hans Klok. London hasn’t seen a big magic show on one of its stages for quite a while. 112 years ago the capital played host to Harry Houdini, and in this show Hans Klok pays homage to this hero of magic with a spectacular illusion and stunt show of his own. Klok of course means ‘clock’ and a sense of magic through time was important to what we were shown, there were hints of the travelling fairs of bygone times, as well as, vaudeville, burlesque and, for some reason, pirates. All this showcased a number of outstanding illusions all done with practiced ease and at great speed to leave you gasping ‘No Way!’ This is the selling point for this show rather than the originality of what we are seeing.

Hans Klok paid tribute from the stage to Paul Daniels who was in the audience and indeed most of what we see has changed little since his BBC TV shows of the 1980s and 1990s. Variants on ‘Metamorphosis’ is seen time and again, Klok is locked in a cage and then a millisecond later he’s out and one of his three lithe ‘Divas of Magic’ is there … next time he is in a tank of water and … well you can guess what happens a second later. There are some real classics also on show, levitation, card tricks, the bottle and glass trick made famous in the UK by Tommy Cooper and the outstanding recreation of Harry Blackstone Jr’s ‘Floating Lightbulb’ amongst others that reveal Klok to be a slick ‘conjuror’ of no little accomplishment.

This two-hour plus show rattles along with some admittedly 1980s’ production values; there are also some dodgy jokes and some especially cheesy dance routines against a backdrop of suitably atmospheric classical and film music. It is all so much fun that none of this matters whatsoever. Whenever Klok needs to catch his breath he introduces one of the international circus acts also performing; there are examples of extreme balance and shows of strength from Leosvel & Diosmani and Duo You And Me. Zhang Fan’s slack wire stunt was outstanding and M G Team’s roller-skating display seemed to involve a genuine mishap that shows that not everything is as easy as it seems.

In what Hans Klok describes as a Houdini-style ‘stunt’ and not an illusion, there is probably no real danger when he dangles above the stage squirming out of a straitjacket between the ‘Jaws of Death’ that will shut on him when a rope is burnt through. Do we expect him to cheat death – of course we do – but that does not stop his escape being thrilling. Houdini took his secrets to the grave but his legacy lives on and is in no better ‘Hans’ than here with The Houdini Experience. This is perfect family entertainment for anyone willing to be amazed and to question whether their eyes are playing tricks on them.

Jim Pritchard

Performances continue at the Peacock Theatre until 25th March. For further information please go to www.sadlerswells.com.

For more information about the current Houdini: Art and Magic exhibition at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (ends 13 May 2012) visit their website http://mmoca.org/.