March 2, 2024

Edinburgh Fringe Review: Paul Dabek Presents Thurston

Not quite theatre, not quite magic; in this surprisingly thought-provoking show, Paul Dabek brings to life Howard Thurston, once world-famous rival to Houdini, now virtually forgotten.

Speaking as the ghost of Thurston, haunting a theatre, Dabek narrates his troubled and grimy past as a pick-pocket and street con-man, the events that led to his life-long fascination with death and what lay beyond, and the height of his fame; in 1924 he performed for President Coolidge, with an act that is skilfully recreated with audience members standing in for the president and his wife.

Every one of the magic tricks is mesmerising in its simplicity and artfully integrated into the narrative, whether the secret is obvious, as when Thurston makes a flower disappear through sleight of hand, or not, as during his famous Rising Cards trick. Dabek takes tricks that everyone in the audience has seen a hundred times before and makes them breath-taking, and every one of them has a role to play in the greater scheme of the play.

Thurston contemplates what drove him to become a stage magician, what it means to be a performer, what it means to be famous, and what it means to be alive. The disappearing cards and the Indian Rope Trick become analogues for death. The magician and the escapologist become so much more; ‘the magician has much in common with the criminal, or the actor. Or the priest.’

The wandering narrative – or lack thereof – may not be to everyone’s tastes, and while I was there it did not hold everyone’s attention through to the end. This is an hour-long introspective monologue interspersed with magic tricks and if you come only for the magic you’ll likely be disappointed.

Perhaps the biggest flaw is the inclusion of Houdini. Dabek is not a good enough character to carry two roles at once, unless the intention was that Houdini and Thurston be all but interchangeable. Differentiating between the two relies almost entirely on their different coloured coats. Houdini’s external perspective on Thurston, though interesting, is not strictly necessary and at times feels like an intrusion. That said, however, Houdini’s brief feat of escapology is perhaps the show’s most mind-blowingly simple set piece, so his presence is easily forgiven.

If you can find the time, Paul Dabek Presents Thurston is on at 16:15 at the Voodoo Rooms every day until August 25th, and is free to enter but well worth paying for. If you can’t, I’d recommend looking up Howard Thurston; you’ll likely be sorry to have missed hearing him speak.

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