Friday, 6 January 2023

Theatre review: The Art of Illusion

After a couple of homegrown successes, Hampstead Downstairs premieres a play that's already been a hit in France for Alexis Michalik (whose plays have all had long runs there, as the playwright himself informs us in the programme. Multiple times.) The Art of Illusion gets its UK premiere in a version by Waleed Akhtar and a production by Tom Jackson Greaves, but while its premise playfully tunes into an appealing sense of wonder, it soon comes a cropper when trying to make a story out of it. In fact the play follows three Parisian stories, two real, one fictional: In the first half of the 19th century, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (Kwaku Mills) is a magician and automaton-designer who becomes the father of modern magic, taking the tricks from carnival sideshows to theatres and royal courts. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Georges Méliès (Norah Lopez Holden) is a big fan of Robert-Houdin's, who uses this sense of magic and spectacle when he becomes a filmmaker and pioneer of visual effects.

In 1984, during the Euros and a series of particularly tense games for the French team, pickpocket December (Brian Martin) falls for safe-builder April (Bettrys Jones,) who says she has a particularly fascinating bank vault to show him.

The stories are narrated by The Watchmaker (Martin Hyder,) who implies he's some kind of spirit of stage magic itself, reincarnating throughout history and appearing to all three men to nudge them forward at crucial moments. They're loosely linked by Robert-Houdin's tiny theatre, which ends up being important to all the stories. The cast also double as all the incidental characters, and while Rina Fatania doesn't have one major role throughout, the reliably funny actor has a number of comic cameos including a dramatic Italian carny and April's overprotective best friend.

They're an energetic and charming sextet, and Simon Kenny's design decks them out in the waistcoats of old-fashioned stage magicians as they pepper the performance with classic illusions (by Ben Hart,) with the odd period-specific bit of clothing to tell us which story we're in at any time. But it's soon apparent that enthusiasm alone won't hold together a script that never seems to know why we're seeing all these stories tied together, beyond the vague thematic link of illusion and misdirection.

In not really connecting the stories beyond the link to the building, Michalik also leaves us without enough of each man's story to get our teeth into - Robert-Houdin's in particular seems to just get unceremoniously cast aside, and with the lack of focus I had trouble staying interested. But most disappointing of all is the resolution to April and December's plot thread: Given the overall theme, this must be meant as as the big magical reveal, but it's less of a Prestige, more of the pair revealing an increasing list of outlandish coincidences that haven't been set up properly - I'll put the worst offender in a footnote because spoilers*. Meanwhile there's never any reveal to the vague mysticism of Hyder's character, and it's fair enough that it's a distraction, but what it's distracting us from matters: This isn't sleight of hand to distract from the pack of cards that's being swapped in front of our eyes; it's to distract us from the fact that while we've been looking at the cards there's been a whole other stage behind us, and there's a hat there with a rabbit in it.

The Art of Illusion by Alexis Michalik in a version by Waleed Akhtar is booking until the 28th of January at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Robert Day.

*one of the first things December tells the audience is that he's so opposed to ever having children he got a vasectomy in his twenties. The final big plot twist revolves around the sperm he donated just before that... which is the first we've heard of that.

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