How many of us have heard of Bess Rahner, very few I would wager. But after seeing Christine Foster’s new play, in preview at Eastbourne’s Grove Theatre, I know a lot more. Yes a lot more about the woman who married and stayed with escapologist and illusionist Harry Houdini until his untimely death, but also about the nature of faith and belief.

Set after the magicians’ death we find Beth in a sanatorium under the care of Dr Humphrey Cousins and attended by nurse Anna MacDermott, both charged with helping Bess overcome a drink and drug problem but also her deep and disturbed grief. Bess is distressed and distraught, hounded by the press and by the growing number of spiritualists who are clambering to know if Houdini has been in touch from beyond the grave. Does Bess believe that he can or even will, it’s all a matter of belief or faith and the pressure plays on the already fragile widow.

At the centre of this new work is Bess played by Pip Henderson with extraordinary clarity. In the calm moments there is a gentleness to the performance but when the character veers into mania the effect is startling, every move, every twitch, those darting eyes… this is a portrayal of real intensity. And along the way Henderson has been charged by inserting a variety of magic tricks, under the supervision of master magician Paul Zenon. These she pulls off with ease as they are discretely inserted into the action, no showboating here, just witty visual conceits to amuse and entertain.

John-Christian Bateman plays the doctor with assured reserve and an air of arrogant self confidence. He also undertakes all the other male roles convincingly acted with both posture and excellent costumes from designer Ryan Webster.

Nurse Anna is a theatrical gem created by Gwenneth Holmes. This chirpy caring creation is simply marvellous, fluttering around the stage, facilitating some of Bess’s quirks and qualms, but always looking after her real needs. But underlying this there is also the fascination she has for Harry Houdini and the excitement she expresses when handed a ring that he might once have touched is so real. It is a really masterful performance and then when she returns to the stage to play Bess’s Sister May we are treated to the talent of a real actor! Bold, brash and brazen, May adds a darkly comic element to the whole in the hands of this talented young actor.

In looking at the life of Bess we are charged with considering magic and illusion, whether there is actually such a thing as magic and certainly whether there is life after death.

The Houdinis formed a pact, a test of the afterlife that takes Bess to the edge of sanity and in one short line the heart of this fascinating new work is displayed – “faith is immune to logic”.

The Eastbourne previews will no doubt prompt some changes before the premiere at London’s Upstairs at The Gatehouse in Highgate. There are perhaps one too many moments at the end where we the audience were unsure of whether it had finished and a few scenes that seem a little overly long, but in the assured hands of director James Weisz, who has wrought such excellent performances from this cast, the finished work promises to be truly gripping.

Andrew Kay

Grove Theatre Eastbourne

20 October

Rating: ★★★★☆

Bess: The Other Houdini opens at Upstairs at The Gatehouse October 24 – Nov 12


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