Review: The Art of Illusion, Hampstead Theatre (Downstairs) - the magic doesn't always translate
The Art of Illusion won several awards when it opened in Paris in 2014. Now it gets its London premiere at the Hampstead Theatre but will this play about magic and illusion conjure up some English awards?
It is a play with two timelines. In 1984 a man named December (Brian Martin) meets a woman named April (Bettrys Jones) in a cafe to return her bag, which he 'found'.
He tells her how he was obsessed with magic as a child and the famous 19th Century illusionist Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin. They set out to find what would have been Houdin's basement theatre.
Then in the second timeline, we follow the story of Houdin's life, career and what followed at his theatre.
We switch between the stories at an increasingly rapid pace all the time with unsubtle reminders about illusion and reality. But there are also questions about chance and fate. The coincidence of December and April meeting and both being named after months is just the tip of a very big iceberg.
There is an inherent Frenchness to the play and performances with a dose of the absurd and clown-like. There is also some magic which is good to see close up in Hampstead Theatre's bijou studio space.
I particularly enjoyed watching Rina Fatania; she brought amusement to pretty much every character she played.
The problem with the Art of Illusion is aside from some physical humour, the comedy is lost in translation. While the history of illusion as a form of entertainment is interesting, the weaving timelines start to become chaotic.
The reveals don't land with any surprise, and despite the fast pace, the story begins to drag towards the end.
It has moments of charm, silliness and amusement but doesn't sustain it sufficiently.
I'm giving it ⭐️⭐️⭐️
The Art of Illusion, Hampstead Theatre (Downstairs)
Directed by Tom Jackson Greaves
Written by Alexis Michalik, translated by Waleed Akhtar
Running time: One hour and 40 minutes without an interval
Booking until 27 January, for more details and to buy tickets, visit Hampstead's website.
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