Soho Theatre On Demand, 6/5/2020.
If COVID is doing anything good for the comedy industry (amidst the incalculable harm to the tradition of live performance in this country) it might be the enforced break in the rigorous live touring schedules of most stand up’s that’s imposed by the annual Edinburgh Festival. In this rare period of downtime, it’s great to see some parts of the industry look back and take more of an interest in preserving shows – often important documents of the alternative scene that were recorded but never distributed because there’s always a new show to work on.
Soho Theatre is in many ways the epicentre of this scene, so it’s great to see them pick up the NextUp baton and reinvigorate their streaming platform Soho Theatre On Demand, which had pretty much lain fallow for a few years pre-COVID. Among a number of typically well-chosen shows, it’s exciting to see Nick Mohammed’s Mr. Swallow: Houdini get a permanent home for those of us who missed it at the fringe in 2016.
The conceit is not at all simple. Mohammed’s alter ego Mr. Swallow is a stage magician with an unusual stage presence. He’s a camp, excitable chatterbox who sometimes does Tommy Cooper-style failed magic, and sometimes does pretty impressive close-up magic and stunts, although he often seems not to understand how the tricks work, or at least seems to be a few steps out of sync with his magic. I find it difficult to drill down to the core concept of this character, but it’s always hysterical when (for example) a ball appears under his cup, and he shrieks in surprise. On top of this we have the metafictional layer that Mr. Swallow is putting on a live biopic of Houdini, in which he plays Houdini, and performs a few of Houdini’s greatest tricks. It seems like he may have been coerced into this plan by one of his two assistants, played very well by two great stand up’s David Elms and Kieran Hodgson – both completely integral parts of this show and pretty much sharing equal spotlight time with Mohammed.
So there’s a lot going on, and you can kind of feel the cameras straining to catch it all. The show is a beast of entertainment, mixing comedy, close-up magic, big musical numbers and escapology, often at the same time, and to a higher standard than many West End shows with huge casts and huge budgets. The close-up sequences are the best, like the cup and ball and the bit with the handcuffs. The speed is incredible, the jokes are giddy and the magic is genuinely delightful, like Tommy Cooper on fast forward. The musical numbers and the extended séance bit are very well done, but give the pace a bit of a knock.
There’s also an underlying problem of technical constraints. Until we have extremely sophisticated immersive hologram tech, streaming is never going to replicate the power of live performance. That’s cool, that’s fine, it’s much more important that great stuff like this is preserved for those who couldn’t be there at the time. But with this show specifically, you can really feel the difference. So much of the comedy comes in quick, muttered asides that are drowned out by the live piano accompaniment, and looks shot between the three players that are cut off by awkward framing, which struggles to capture the intricacy of Mohammed’s close-up magic in the same shot as the two other performers doing big business across the stage. Not something that would trouble a more traditional stand up set, but tricky when there are so many elements pulling focus at the same time.
Teething problems aside, it’s really heartening that this show gets a second life through Soho Theatre On Demand, and brilliant that we finally have a permanent document of the stage material of Nick Mohammed – an underappreciated master of his craft.
You can watch the special on Soho On Demand’s site here.