illusionist Norvil performs houdini escape

Houdini Gone Haywire

What’s there to do when it all falls apart?  People often ask if things ever go wrong for me as an illusionist in front of an audience.  Of course it happens but if the illusionist is good at improvising and has thoroughly thought through back-up plans then it can be a life saver. Also, the audience most of the time doesn’t know what’s supposed to happen. That means the illusionist can usually work their way out of the pickle through some fancy footwork. But sometimes, it’s worse than that…

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Closely guarded secrets and myths of The Magic Circle.
Performances in Leeds on the same stage as Houdini.


It was 2006. I had been working frantically for months with my new partner in crime Desireé Kongerød. Our job was to create a brand new illusionist act to debut at London’s Old Billingsgate Market for a month full of in-house illusionist entertainment. It was the seedling that was to become our beloved Norvil & Josephine.  Since then we’ve been fortunate enough to have performed the act on international television and all around the UK. Stages we’ve worked on so far include the Hackney Empire and Leeds City Varieties Theatre (I wrote about that in another post).

It was – without question – the most hair-raising production schedule I’d ever faced. Equipment, props and accessories trickled in from four continents. The sold-out opening night loomed. One thousand people were descending. No pressure.


We chose the finale early on. We planned that our new London illusionist act would close with a legendary number made famous by none other than Harry Houdini himself. It goes like this: members of the audience examine everything on stage. Norvil (who I play – the dude with the ‘tache) is then handcuffed, bagged, and locked in a trunk…

Josephine stands on top, with a flourish she tosses the keys to the stage floor and throws a curtain up…

When it falls down, the audience gasps to discover Josephine has transformed into Norvil. The illusionist switches places with his partner in the blink of an eye. He jumps down, plucks up the keys from the stage floor, unlocks the trunk, and inside the tied bag is a wiggling figure who we find to be the handcuffed Josephine herself! We had rehearsed it endlessly in the rehearsal studio. We were as ready as we could be.

Norvil is handcuffed while illusionist double act Norvil & Josephine perform their escape from the trunk finale.

At the best of times, production schedules in venues and theatres are down to the second. Due to technical setbacks the stage in this case wasn’t ready on time for our all-important tech rehearsal. This meant our rehearsal was cut short so we couldn’t practice our finale on stage. The first arrivals at the venue waited outside so we had to clear the set. Mental notes to self: “It should be fine. The technicians know their cues up to the end of the show. We know what we’re doing.”

Famous last words!

Performers of all breeds know how crucial those tech rehearsals are for a smooth show. But they never want to be reminded why.


It seemed we were in the clear.  The show had all gone well. The finale’s triumphant transposition of Norvil & Josephine had been a success. The audience is cheering wildly, we are seconds away from a successful debut show behind us. Norvil jumps off the trunk to get the key… to get … the key… to get… There was no key.  Looking back, that’s the moment when we discovered that those harmless few minutes cut from the end of our tech rehearsal were actually a priceless treasure snatched from our grasp.  The stage floor was high-gloss white, lined by a stainless steel trim. When you add dazzling stage lights to the equation, you get a rabbit-in-the-headlights scenario, with keys being practically invisible.

Excruciating moments passed for Norvil who was ad-libbing with the audience as if it was all part of the show. Meanwhile he tried to hide the fact that he was an illusionist frantically looking for the keys to help him escape this drama!

Moments passed, feeling like an eternity.


There was no curtain on stage to draw in and rescue us. So I decided the only way out was to summon the stage hands to come on stage and manhandle the trunk backstage.

Though at that moment, an audience member spotted …the keys! They had slid to a crevice on the stage’s perimeter totally invisible to anyone standing on the stage blinded by the lights. All was saved, and moments later Josephine emerged from the trunk (glistening as if from a sauna) rather relieved to take that applause.

The thrills of a live illusionist performance. When you see the act, during the finale you’ll notice Josephine wears the keys on a hot pink sequined ribbon. Now you know why! – CH

Post script: Here’s the Norvil & Josephine official website if you’d like to check out videos of all the trouble we get up to.

Say hello and drop me a note in the comments below. Thanks for coming along with me and I hope to see you again after a few more turns in the trail.

2 thoughts on “Houdini Gone Haywire”

  1. Wonderful story and lesson! Thrilling to hear it firsthand. Yikes and more yikes! And I love that the happy ending was provided by the audience. Audiences are often thought of – and perhaps think of themselves – as being passive, unimportant – but this is a fantastic example of how the relationship between performer and audience can be organic, and all-important.

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