The Art of Illusion – Hampstead Theatre, London

Reviewer: Miriam Sallon

Writer: Alexis Michalik

Director: Tom Jackson Greaves

The allure of a magical story set during the fin de siècle – tailcoats and capes, mystery intertwining with mechanics – is a hard thing to resist. Think The Illusionist, The Prestige, The Night Circus. It’s a perfect aesthetic, mixing the romantic with the beginnings of modernity. So it’s no wonder that writer Alexis Michalik, here in a translation by Waleed Akhtar, has decided to centre his story around this kind of magical atmosphere.

The plot is split into three different time periods, three different ‘magicians’: The first, Robert-Houdin, who revolutionised the art of magic in the 18th century, introducing black-tie and a theatre, where before there was only a travelling caravan. The second, Georges Méliès, one of the first filmmakers at the turn of the 20th century, and the final, a petty thief named December in 1984.

But whilst visually it makes sense to combine these stories, the narrative links are a little tenuous. What does Méliès have to do with Robert-Houdin, except that they worked in the same basement? And what does Méliès have to do with a petty criminal except for their joint admiration of Robert-Houdin?

Clocking in at 1 hour and 40 minutes with no interval, this should be a massive drag, but the performances elevate the slightly clunky plot. Martin Hyder’s mysterious helpful stranger – “I have lived many lives”, he repeats over and again – is a fairly pointless character, but he plays it brilliantly, giving warmth and authority to this otherwise unlikely trio.

The rest of the cast is engaging and charming, switching between multiple roles, often with only a single prop or item of clothing to denote the change. Some characters are stronger than others, but what they occasionally lack in chemistry they make up for with heaps of enthusiasm.

Although the final bow that ties them together is a little too neat, the central love story between December and a vault designer named April is genuinely engrossing. If one wanted to make this story a little tighter, perhaps this storyline and that of Georges Méliès would do nicely.

Simon Kenny’s design sees a circular platform placed within the usual thrust stage, hinting at a circus-style performance whilst also referencing the play’s motto, that life is circular. The ever-changing dates are shown subtly, printed on props – a book, a pair of boots, a saucepan. A thoughtful and elegant idea that shouldn’t work – what if the audience doesn’t notice? – but somehow does.

Where the story falls short, the atmosphere and performances make this story well worth a watch, and while there are very few stories that deserve the audience’s undivided attention for 100 minutes straight through, The Art of Illusion makes a strong case.

Runs until 28 January 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Alluring but clunky

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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