Brighton Fringe 2015
"1926: Houdini’s right-hand man deals with the death of his boss. A half century later, a Blackpool joke shop proprietor takes on a wide-eyed young protégé. An affectionate look at a misspent youth and unsung heroes; a touching true story of interlocking lives."
This is Paul Zenon up close and personal. Do not expect a magic show, expect an hour of autobiographical reflection and storytelling laced with some history of magic, illusion and escapology. Do expect a trip to Blackpool or two and an hour of highly accessibly, funny, touching and informative wit and a bit of wisdom.
Paul Zenon wanted to be a magician from a very early age. A paranormal sceptic, Zenon’s tongue-in-cheek dream of being a full-time wizard has been realised in this show. He’s certainly a wizard with words.
A lot of words are packed into the hour and, in places, there’s almost too many of them. From a theatrical point of view, less is often more and I feel the show will benefit from attention to pacing and tempo as the run develops. In places there’s just too much content and a few well chosen silences and pauses will benefit it as drama.
The linking rings becomes a metaphor for lives that overlap and interlock. It’s a clever concept and Zenon has woven it into a very cleverly crafted story. Indeed, the script itself is a bit of a cabinet with hidden compartments that reveal pleasing and touching secrets. Zenon is generous in sharing a few of those once hidden stories from his life, yet he holds back a little on sharing his feelings – allowing the episodes themselves and his often deadpan style to allow the emotion to tell its own story. He leaves a punchline hanging in the air, and a sigh from an audience member confirms the impact. And then, suddenly, he whips a beer out of nowhere. Of course he does.
And that’s the genius of the piece – this is an attempt at autobiography that seeks to discover some self knowledge – was Zenon, Colllins or Houdini ? He’s been both, more than once, and both assistant and performer make the magician in the end. He tells us, he shows us. He makes us laugh, and many in the audience (and one on stage) were crying in the end.
Paul Zenon tells it straight. Or does he? His style is companionable, self-deprecating in places, he’s at home on a set of magical mementoes and ’70s memorabilia. Yet this directness is an illusion – an illusion set before us for good reasons. For Zenon’s tale is bound up with parallel lives separated by a century. Zenon knew someone who knew Houdini and, equally as significant – his assistant and the genius behind is magical feats, Jim Collins. The man behind the showman. Zenon gives us both and then doubles it as five rings interlocks – Zenon the vulnerable human, Zenon the magician performer, Collins, the man behind Houdini’s illusions and Houdini himself.
But this is also a story about Bill, owner of the House of Secrets in Blackpool. Bill is s catalyst, a guru, an inspiration and ultimately a deep friend to Zenon throughout his life as a budding "wizard". Lives connect, parallels are drawn and tricks become closely created metaphors for history – Zenon’s, Houdini’s and Bill’s, before the whole tale comes satisfyingly full circle. So, in a way, the directness of Zenon the storyteller is like a card trick conjurer’ feint. We buy the direct Zenon and then we are shown what lies behind the man. It’s a touching, beautifully made magic cabinet of writing and its delivered mildly as theatre and powerfully as storytelling. And it is going to getter better and better the more he runs it. You’d be a fool to miss it. Zenon gives us a deeply authentic beautifully written, layered, and accessibly delivered hour of theatre-story. Highly recommended.