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Review: THE ART OF ILLUSION, Hampstead Theatre

Review: THE ART OF ILLUSION, Hampstead Theatre

A romantic comedy masquerading as a French pastiche that neither has the gravitas of a good illusionist act nor the pace of thrilling theatre.

Review: THE ART OF ILLUSION, Hampstead Theatre

Hampstead Theatre didn't have the best end to 2022, with the year culminating with a total cut of government funding and the subsequent departure of their artistic director Roxana Silbert. While they might need to conjure up some magic to keep up the great new work they've been producing, what we find in The Art of Illusion might not be the one. Alexis Michalik's play premiered in 2014 directed by the French playwright himself back in Paris, where the piece is also set.

Sold as a curious tale of enchantment, it's a romantic comedy masquerading as a French pastiche that crosses eras and genres. Translated by Waleed Akhtar, it's debuting at the theatre's Downstairs stage with Tom Jackson Greaves at the helm. Unfortunately, this shaky production leaves much to be desired.

It ends up being the long-winded journey of the birth cinema via Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (who's not the same man as the hyper-famous American Houdini) to reach Georges Méliès and his revolutionary 1902 short film A Trip to the Moon. For a show that's all about celebrating the spectacle of perception, it neither has the gravitas of a good illusionist act nor the pace of thrilling theatre.

With many fumbles, clumsy "magic" and a falling battery pack too, this first British iteration of Michalik's script lacks the confidence needed for it to work seamlessly. Peculiar characters interweave story after story led by Martin Hyder's Watchmaker, who acts as a metaphysical fil rouge through time. There's a lot going on. Perhaps too much.

Brian Martin is December, a petty thief who pretends he doesn't care about the 1984 UEFA Championship. He notices that the woman whose bag he's just stolen is rather beautiful, so he decides to return it. But April (Bettrys Jones) turns out to be more than he thought.

Ridiculous names and unbelievable plot twists aside, it's a shame that this lacklustre piece doesn't fulfil its mission. Greaves doesn't manage to maintain any sort of rich atmosphere or oddity. While he is unafraid of making fun of the theme itself with a dash of occasional directorial bonkerism, there are a few questionable actorial choices as well as a definite lack of smoke and mirrors. You can only make a red napkin disappear in a decoy thumb twice before it grows obvious and old.

This said, there are a few striking performances, spearheaded by Norah Lopez Holden in splendid form as Georges. Martin and Jones don't share much chemistry as the adventurous budding couple, but handle the French comedy side of it well; Hyder, however, whose character should be overflowing with charisma and wonder, is only a mild choice.

Simon Kenny's set consists of a round platform with old-timey footlights, grey crushed velveteen curtains, and randomly stacked furniture high above that you only see if careful enough. In short, it contributes very little, as sadly does Matt Haskins' practical but rather unmagical lighting design.

The company might get better as they grow more skilled in the tricks involved in the production, but it's difficult to save a show that feels as tired and unsophisticated as a seaside attraction.

The Art of Illusion runs at Hampstead Theatre until 28 January.

Photo credit: Robert Day

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From This Author - Cindy Marcolina

Italian export. Member of the Critics' Circle (Drama). Also a script reader and huge supporter of new work. Twitter: @Cindy_Marcolina

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