Colourful artwork with an illustrated Houdini in the centre of a psychic crystal ball with a variety of things surrounding him including a gold fish, elephant, locked safe, deck of cards, key and more.

Find out more about Houdini's Greatest Escape from producer and writer, Feargus Woods Dunlop.

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 the world premiere of Houdini’s Greatest Escape. A hilarious 39 Steps-esque thriller, played out in New Old Friends’ (Crimes on Centre Court) inimitable, award-winning style of physical comedy, sparkling wit and just a touch of chaos.

Can you tell us (without giving too much away!) a little about the show

We’ve taken the legendary entertainer Harry Houdini and zeroed in on a slightly lesser-known aspect of his life; his feud with false mediums, and used that as a jumping off point for a fast-paced romp of a thriller. But with bags of jokes, theatrical set=pieces and… because we’re dealing with arguably the greatest stage magician ever, some proper old-school illusions. It centres both Harry and his wife Bess who was very much his equal and, in our story, perhaps more so.

What was your inspiration for the show , would you call yourself a Houdini fan?

I’ve always been quite fascinated by Houdini, but I wouldn’t say I was really a particular fan of his before starting on the project. I loved the world, the theatricality of it and the sheer chutzpah of a little immigrant Jewish boy transforming himself into the best known and highest paid entertainer of his day. I was particularly inspired by literature actually, specifically two incredible novels: Carter Beats the Devil and Kavalier & Clay.

It sounds as though you did a fair bit of research for your writing?

Yes. Even though ours is a fictional tale we knew we wanted it to be rooted in truth so there was a lot of reading about Harry and Bess’ relationship. How and why he was taking on a crusade against the fast-growing religion in the world at the time (Spiritualism) and even some of the more out there theories that swirl around him; that he used his international touring to cover for his true intentions as a spy for example, or that Arthur Conan Doyle conspired to have him assassinated because of his views on Spiritualism. It was a wild ride, the man had an incredible life; enough for an entire cycle of plays (or a brilliant bingeable TV series if you’re reading this commissioners…)

What was the most interesting ‘fact you found’ during research?

There were so many. I do love the fact that most of Harry’s escapes happened behind a screen – he would be searched (sometimes VERY thoroughly) before being secured in whatever he was to escape from and then a ‘cabinet’ would be placed in front of or around him and he would emerge some time later free. So, the audience were just listening to the orchestra watching a static cabinet occasionally hearing grunts of effort from Houdini or seeing him pop out to ask for a glass of water or similar. But sometimes he would complete the escape too quickly for the audience to feel they got their money’s worth so he would just wait behind his curtain listening to the music along with them and allow the tension to build!

And for the show you’re working with illusions designed by TV’s Pete Firman to create some of the on stage magic…

That’s right. We’ve long been fans of Pete’s stage work and our paths had crossed a couple of times. He is a brilliantly funny performer as well as a deeply talented magician so when we were looking for someone to consult and design the illusions on the show, he was a natural fit. We sent him an early draft of the script and where we wanted to the magic to go (we recreate some of Harry’s stage show in the show, but also wanted to pepper magic throughout in other areas) and then Pete told us which tricks would work well and which tricks were achievable with our hardworking multi-rolling cast of actors, not magicians. Then he comes along to our rehearsal room and in a few short days turns us into actual wizards.

It all sounds very intriguing! Do you have a favourite ’bit’ you are looking forward to seeing play out on stage?

There are so many huge set pieces that could be spectacular like the illusions, a roof top train chase and an underwater escape from handcuffs and a sinking car that I feel I should pick those. But actually, the thing I’m most looking forward to is a very simple, silly scene, with just one actor playing four characters in conversation all at the same time. It is quintessentially New Old Friends and looks chaotic and simple but requires so much work to get right. If we do get it right (and we will) I think it will bring the house down.

Have there been any challenges so far in the staging of the show?

Oh yes, do you remember me talking about the roof top train chase and the underwater escape from handcuffs and a sinking car? Figuring out how to put those on stage in our ‘low-fi analogue theatre’ style has been a gloriously difficult challenge and we love it.

Cast members of Houdini's Greatest Escape in rehearsals. They are standing and reading from scripts.

New Old Friends has a very loyal fan base. How would Houdini’s Greatest Escape compare to your previous shows?

If you’ve seen our previous work there will be loads of familiar DNA; multirolling actors, inventive set pieces supported by inventive pieces of set, ridiculous wordplay delivered by ridiculous characters. What is different this time is; firstly the introduction of Harry and Bess Houdini as dual ‘straight guys’ in that both are being played by a single performer and that is their only role, plus all the joy and baggage that a figure like Harry Houdini brings to a show. But also for fans of our ‘Crimes…’ series this isn’t a murder mystery, there is a murder but no mystery, it happens right in front of us. The plot that drives this one is Harry & Bess are framed for that murder and have to clear their names before its too late.

What characters can we expect to see in the show?

You’ve got Harry & Bess Houdini, who are drawn from research filtered through popular culture and the demands of the show. Then we’ve created British version of Harry’s real-life nemesis Margery – a celebrity medium and member of the New England upper crust, who in our show becomes Agatha a celebrity medium and distant relative of the Queen. We’ve then got the Barker gang of nefarious criminals, Chief Doyle the corrupt Police Chief (his name a nod to Houdini’s frenemy Arthur Conan-Doyle), and quite a few others including an elephant called Nelly (what else?)

And the cast who play them?

They are all utterly superb. Ben Higgins is taking on the icon of Harry Houdini and delivering it with a suave charm that is delicious to behold. Lydia Piechowiak beautifully plays Bess, his wife, but every bit his equal the true brains of the operation. Then New Old Friends regulars Kirsty Cox & Adam Elliott are in the multi-role tracks taking on many characters each, bringing virtuosity to each gloriously crafted piece of nonsense they are tasked with.

What are you hoping audiences will take away from the show? 

We believe in entertainment. We want people to come and forget the headlines and the stresses of the world for ninety minutes and be transported to a different era of pure entertainment. This is a show built to be enjoyed by an audience not for any higher purpose than ninety minutes of laughs, gasps and how-do-they-do-that’s? We hope they take away sore sides and warm hearts regardless of age or any other factors.

And finally, if you had to sum Houdini’s Greatest Escape up in just 3 words what would they be?

Mirth, Magic, Mayhem!

Catch Houdini's Greatest Escape at ours on Tue 5 - Wed 6 March.