Nick Mohammed on alter-ego’s new biopic of Harry Houdini

Nick Mohammed as Mr Swallow playing Harry Houdini. Picture: Contributed
Nick Mohammed as Mr Swallow playing Harry Houdini. Picture: Contributed
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Nick Mohammed reveals why he might end up being dragged lifeless from the stage during his alter-ego Mr Swallow’s ill-conceived biopic of escape artist Harry Houdini

‘Ryan, we need a gun. A really loud one.” I’m observing rehearsals for Mr Swallow – Houdini, the latest magnum opus from Nick Mohammed’s prima-donnish alter-ego. Phrases like “bullet catch” and “guillotine” are being casually tossed around London’s Pleasance Theatre. Meanwhile, Mohammed and co-stars Kieran Hodgson and David Elms are debating with director Matt Peover the most effective way to surreptitiously cram Hodgson into a box during a musical number.

Climaxing with the legendary Chinese Water Torture Cell illusion, Swallow’s ill-conceived biopic of the renowned escape artist will feature Mohammed genuinely attempting to free himself from chains while suspended in a water tank. As I watch Swallow vaingloriously sing his way through Houdini’s first handcuff escape, the show-within-a-show has Elms, once again playing put-upon producer Mr Goldsworth, playing the illusionist’s pushy mother, ask how he’s going to top such a feat.

And just how will Mohammed top himself? Two years ago, Mr Swallow – The Musical, an all-singing, all-dancing portrayal of the skittish maestro leading an acting troupe through a chaotic adaptation of Dracula, became a Fringe hit, transferring to London and securing him movie roles. Today, the 35-year-old suggests that being dragged lifeless from the stage, Tommy Cooper-style, might “be a great way to go”.

The tank is still to arrive and his wife is asking about life insurance. With characteristic dedication, Mohammed has taught himself lock-picking and apnea breathing techniques, a discipline practised by free divers. The show boasts a “magic consultant”. And more practically, a hidden axe. Hodgson and Elms are primed to intervene if they don’t see the correct cues from him during the nail-biting finale.

“The idea of him actually being in danger instinctively made me laugh because he’s such a buffoon,” Mohammed remarks of the gallows humour during his lunch break. “There’s a running thread in the show about what’s pretend and what isn’t. He hasn’t realised that he should have practised and what he thinks is an illusion is happening for real.”

An avowed admirer of Derren Brown and a gigging magician until 2011 – with his first book, a children’s title about the Magic Circle, published soon – Mohammed has been performing as the irrepressible, inexplicable Swallow for 12 years. However, The Musical was his debut outing as part of an ensemble, which he found “completely freeing, suddenly there’s dialogue and you can add nods, winks, asides and other stuff that you can throw to the rest of the cast”. Before that, Swallow had presented one-man lectures, declaring mastery of such diverse skills as the violin, gymnastics, feats of memory and complex mathematical equations.

In constant demand to guest on sitcoms, a go-to actor for officious bosses or gossipy irritants, Mohammed shares little of the camp of his most enduring creation, which was predominantly inspired by a female former English teacher, his mother and the voice of a friend from Leeds. He admits to only some of Swallow’s diva-ish tendencies, with his volubility “an outlet for me to say things I wouldn’t dare say in public, the most inappropriate things to blurt at a funeral”.

Nevertheless, the geophysics graduate, who rejected an offer from Cambridge University but became a member of the Footlights anyway, shares with his excitable creation a broad spectrum of interests and a desire to show them off, even if tempered by some of Houdini’s sense of imposter syndrome.

Uncertain whether he’s a polymath, Mohammed appreciates the description “Renaissance Man”. A dilettante, I venture. He tries on “fraud” for size before settling on the more classically Victorian “freak”.

He’d wanted to write a straight biographical play but found Houdini too clinically ambitious and lacking in warmth, before realising that the trait of “constantly having to outdo himself and raise the bar reminded me of Mr Swallow”.

He feels similar pressure to surpass himself. But only “in a quite thrilling way… I get a kick out of thinking what could raise that bar, or at least change the bar, with another live show. Something I would love to see.

“Because he’s such a show-off, Mr Swallow accommodates me. He’s always boasted some skill or other, something he was trying out. Usually, the pay-off is that he achieves the thing it looks like he can’t. And that’s exciting in this show because there’s genuine danger if he fails.”

Lacking an obvious inspiration and explicable backstory, Swallow was criticised in some early reviews as inconsistent. Mohammed was worried that he needed to explain how each show followed on from the last. But while Swallow may have progressed to bigger venues and more elaborate spectacles, the character has remained reassuringly oblivious. And that’s fine. Mohammed can envision an animatronics-based production in the future along the lines of Walking With Dinosaurs. And he suggests the next show will probably be Santa Swallow, “with loads of kids dressed as elves”.

He adds: “Scrooge is a good figure or Mr Swallow to be, as is Santa Claus, and we could have a baby Jesus. I imagine it being Christmas Eve and them having to get everything done by midnight. Ticking clocks work well with him because he’s so off-book, going off on tangents and having to be reined back in.”

Swallow, he continues, is “recognised as having his own shows now. And while people know it’s an act, they seem to enjoy that he takes on a different project each time. As I get more confident, as long as it’s funny and he’s charming, they don’t mind.

“Some people will enjoy some jokes more because they’ve seen him before. But because of Houdini we’ll get a number of ‘tourists’ and we can use that to our advantage.”

One such tourist during the previous musical’s London run was the casting director for sci-fi blockbuster The Martian, leading to space nerd Mohammed, whose 2009 Fringe show was based on the Apollo 11 moon landing, joining Ridley Scott’s thriller and advising Matt Damon’s stranded astronaut from mission control.

Another admirer is Jennifer Saunders, who asked him to channel Swallow into a fashion show assistant in Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, browbeaten by Kathy Burke’s foul-mouthed magazine editor but stealing scenes in his ludicrous wig.

He plays yet another tactless blabbermouth in the upcoming Bridget Jones’s Baby. But wary of being typecast, he points out that he’s also in the cinematic adaptation of Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize-winning The Sense Of An Ending with Jim Broadbent. Swallow may have popped up on Radio 4 but Mohammed is concerned he may be “a bit full-on” for television, so for now at least, he remains a live fixture only.

That’s no matter though because a television breakthrough for his creator could be just around the corner. Filming begins in September on Morning Has Broken, the Channel 4 sitcom co-written by and starring Mohammed and Nighty Night’s Julia Davis. They play bickering breakfast show anchors with David Schwimmer as the American producer parachuted in to boost the show’s flagging ratings.

Despite the growing trend for dropping US actors into British sitcoms, boosting their chances of a stateside broadcast, the Friends star was a long-established fan of Davis’s work Mohammed reveals, and this wasn’t stunt casting.

“I was filming Fresh Meat and the producer called to say ‘David Schwimmer’s seen the pilot, he really likes it and wants to discuss getting involved with you’,” he recalls. “So that was very strange and surreal.

“Because he’s directed so much, it was useful to have his fresh eyes on the script and character detail. He’s very eloquent about comedy and sensitive to the craft because he knows the process so well. He’s been brilliant to collaborate with.”

Borne out of Mohammed and Davis improvising – her preferred writing approach – there ought to be scope to ad-lib during the series, “room to play, a real electricity when you’re in tune, making someone else laugh but you can’t show it” he enthuses.

He’s allowing for a little improvisation on Mr Swallow – Houdini too. But notorious as he is for getting the giggles on set, too much “corpsing” could be tempting fate. He explains that although “it should appear very, very off-the-cuff, a lot of it is deliberately written to imitate that”. A rigorous month of rehearsals will ensure a well-drilled, “very technical performance where all the distractions are planned”.

“Mind you, when that stuff’s all grounded, I’ll rudely try to trip Kieran and David up every now and then. You want to keep some of that freshness and live-in-the-moment feel that is the crux of comedy.”

• Mr Swallow – Houdini, Pleasance Courtyard, 7pm, Wednesday to 28 August