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The Art of Illusion at Hampstead Theatre review: long-running French hit gets lost in translation

 (Robert Day)
(Robert Day)

Something’s got lost in translation here. A long-running hit in Paris, Alexis Michalik’s 2014 play covers more than two centuries in 100 minutes, weaving a complex fabulation around the history of French pioneers of magic and cinema. But this English version is wilfully amateurish, full of oafish mugging, clumsy tricks and jokey British regional accents.

Director Tom Jackson Greaves probably carries more blame than adapter Waleed Akhtar, whose play The P Word impressed at the Bush last year, though the dialogue here is far from sparkling. Whatever: this is the latest in a string of misfires from Hampstead, which recently lost its Arts Council grant. It’s, sadly, also a poor start to London theatre in 2023.

Primarily, Michalik explores the history of Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, a watchmaker’s son who became the father of modern conjuring in the 1840s, and Georges Méliès, the bootmaker’s boy who took over Robert-Houdin’s Parisian theatre and created the first sci-fi film, Voyage to the Moon, in 1902.

But the narrative also stretches back to embrace 1700s automata like Vaucanson’s Digesting Duck and the chess-playing Mechanical Turk, and forward into the 20th century. Here, a pregnant safe-designer called April and a vasectomised thief called December dig into the history of illusion and fall in love against the backdrop of the 1984 Euros footie final. Their unlikely romance is explicitly designed to provide hey-presto surprises.

Confused? You won’t be, actually. The various storylines are clear and elegantly entwined and held together by an all-purpose master of ceremonies, ably played by Martin Hyder. I imagine they seem clever-dickish even in the ongoing Paris production, though.

Martin Hyder, Kwaku Mills, Norah Lopez-Holden and Rina Fatiana in The Art of Illusion at Hampstead Theatre (Robert Day)
Martin Hyder, Kwaku Mills, Norah Lopez-Holden and Rina Fatiana in The Art of Illusion at Hampstead Theatre (Robert Day)

And here, you may get mightily bored as each fast cut between scenes introduces a new parade of gurning, flapping caricatures. Gender roles are allocated fluidly, to comic rather than political effect: the female characters all mince or harrumph while the creative males agonise and wave paintbrushes or card decks. It’s not the actors’ fault: they’ve been told to do it this way.

The staging would be admirably simple if it weren’t so coarse. Journeys are indicated by a clippy-cloppy toy coach or a vroom-vrooming car waggled in front of us. The year in which each scene takes place is painted on a prop or a costume. The tricks devised by ‘illusion consultant’ Ben Hart are basic and obvious.

Michalik’s point, that magic is the product of craftsmanship, hard work and endless disappointment as well as our collective need for wonder, gets lost. The undercurrent of chauvinistic pride in Gallic creativity probably goes over better in Paris, too.

The frustrating thing is that there’s fascinating stuff here, reality and myth: 20th-century escapologist Harry Houdini did indeed choose his name in tribute to Robert-Houdin, and stories of early automata and confected visual narratives illuminate contemporary concerns about artificial intelligence and fake news.

But the smugness and the gendered, football-based in-jokes of Michalik’s original have been exacerbated and the subtleties obscured in this misguided production. Abracadabra? Abracadon’t.

Hampstead Theatre, to 28 Jan; hampsteadtheatre.com