Expect the unexpected in Houdini’s Greatest Escape.

The production company New Old Friends takes the bare facts about double-act Houdini and his beloved wife Bess as the springboard for a fictitious madcap caper through London’s early twentieth century underworld.

Presenting a dizzying array of satirized and stock characters, a talented ensemble of four whip between vaudeville and magical illusion - drawing on Keystone Cops slapstick or theatrical comedy thriller The 39 Steps for inspiration.

The show centres on the double act between Houdini and his wife BessThe show centres on the double act between Houdini and his wife Bess (Image: Pamela Raith)

With its whirlwind plot, this shaggy dog tale is all about pure escapist entertainment. Factual details are sketched in to contextualise and give some credence to the outlandish story.

After a charming initial address from Harry’s brother Theo [Adam Elliott], as he performs a sleight-of-hand card trick while sketching in some back story – the family’s immigrant Jewish roots, Houdini’s childhood spent performing tricks on the Wisconsin streets - the unruly plot kicks off.

Houdini is framed for the theft of a pair of glasses that belonged to the deceased son of gangland matriarch Ma Barker [Kirsty Cox]. Houdini’s dislike of spiritualism is dramatised through his professional rivalry with Agatha, loosely based on real-life nemesis Mina ‘Margery’ Crandon.

Houdini's Great Escape runs at the King's Head Theatre until June 30thHoudini's Great Escape runs at the King's Head Theatre until June 30th (Image: Pamela Raith)

The actors’ multiple-role morphing is ingeniously incorporated into the story-telling. A highpoint is when Adam Elliott switches between five characters in conversation at the same time.

Word-play, innuendo, smatterings of Yiddish are key features.

At times, the surreal riffs push the game-playing too far: the circus performer who believes her arm is an elephant’s trunk.

Caitlin Abbott’s flexible music hall set frames multiple scene changes through an economic use of props or winsome mini sets.

Director Feargus Woods Dunlop, who also wrote the script, keeps a tight reign on the pace. The illusions are impressively slick, not surprising given TV’s Pete Firman is the show’s magic consultant.

As Bess, Lydia Piechowiak is a petite, street-smart, powerhouse who ensures Ben Higgins’ compelling Houdini gets the acclaim he desires.

Tragic undertones in that dynamic deserve teasing out. But the exotic promise of the Houdinis’ world is the focus here and this production delivers in spades – or any of the other three card suits for that matter.

Houdini's Great Escape runs at the King's Head Theatre Islington until June 30.