Review by Sam Waite
There’s a certain type of magic that comes from a smaller, less traditional space. While Sons of the Prophet plays in the Hampstead Theatre’s main house, this new production welcomes us in the more intimate downstairs space, seated on three sides of a rounded platform reminiscent of the Kit-Kat Club. The walls are covered by dark curtains and help to immediately inform you, if the title didn’t give it away, that what you’re in for is part-play part-magic-act – but does the show dazzle and delight, or is your enjoyment more likely to vanish before your very eyes?
Alexis Michalik’s play, first performed in 2014, is translated here by playwright Waleed Akhtar, creator of last year’s acclaimed play The P Word. The plot itself is split between three narratives loosely connected by magician and theatre owner Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin. His story tells of his eventual successes, while another introduces us to young George, a would-be bootmaker who is inspired by Robert-Houdin’s story to pursue his own dreams. The story we are first introduced to feels the most like it could be a fully realised play in and of itself – a classic boy meets girl with a cunning twist.
December and April meet in 1980s Paris, him returning the bag he claims to have found on a metro platform, but which we know he himself stole. Hapless December sees her beauty and opts to return the bag. She soon learns that he’s a thief and tells him about her work creating vaults for banks – in a moment of seemingly blind passion, she sneaks him into one and they discover a relic of Robert-Houdin’s long-gone theatre. Brian Martin and Bettrys Jones are likeable in these roles, only sometimes elevating them beyond their clichés but always being a charming pairing. Unfortunately, the latter part of their story falls into messier territory, with a convoluted heist caper and the introduction of their respective best friends – Kwaku Mills as his and Rina Fatania in a particularly thankless, dislikeable role as hers. Both friends are stereotypes pulled straight from 80s comedies, the footie-obsessed lad and the nerdy, needlessly blunt bestie.
The cast all do at least double duty, allowing everyone some moments to shine. Though less compelling in the December-April story, Rina Fatania gives strong performances elsewhere as two different hard-working wife-cum-collaborators. Leaning into a childlike wonderment that makes his magic career immediately believable, Kwaku Mills does his strongest work as magician Robert-Houdin, but also charms as Georges’ fiancé Simone. Outfitted in a shiny blue skirt but not playing the role as a female impersonation, he brings enough warmth to the character to make us forget the casting.
Of course, Norah Lopez Holden acting opposite him as the lifelong dreamer Georges doesn’t hurt – this gender-bend is here isn’t played for laughs but with a genuine chemistry between the characters. While her characters elsewhere made less of an impression, there’s no denying Holden’s charm as Georges, another eternal dreamer, as she portrays the character from a dismayed child to a professionally struggling adult. This small cast also dash about moving props, quickly changing the small space to suit their needs and pushing further the idea of the play as a magic act.
The weaknesses, I’m sorry to say, come from the story itself and impact the final member of the cast. Credited as Watchmaker, Martin Hyder appears as a series of characters strongly implied to be some sort of otherworldly being, always aware of more than he ought to be and guiding our myriad of protagonists. The production features moments of sleight of hand and other classic magic tricks, which seem particularly underwhelming when the possibility of genuine sorcery hangs over them.
This disconnect only adds to the convoluted nature of the storytelling, in which it takes too long for the connections between the characters in different decades to become clear. Despite this, the stories themselves aren’t particularly complicated, leaving the feeling that things could somehow have been presented in a way that could be easier to follow. It doesn’t help matters that the stories themselves become less engaging as they go on, the historical ones (Robert-Houdin’s and Georges’s) perhaps having time-jumped too soon. December and April’s story is better paced, but falls into questionable twists which soured their ending.
An award-winner in the original French production, I couldn’t help but wonder if something about this piece was lost in translation. There’s no arguing that director Tom Jackson Greaves and his team, Simon Kenny as designer, Matt Haskins having created the lighting design and Yvonne Gilbert crafting the sound, have made effective use of their small space. Perhaps this speaks to an issue in attempting to translate a piece to a new language, or possibly even to the cultural differences between what will win an audience over in another country.
While this magic act failed to make a believer out of me, there is charm to be found in its talented cast and a genuine joy to be mined from their use of the performance space. Some theatregoers may be enchanted by the stagecraft and stronger moments of character work, while others may wish they’d kept a few of the twists up their sleeves – this dichotomy of the arts is the real magic at play.
The Art of Illusion plays Downstairs at Hampstead Theatre until 28th January. Tickets from hampsteadtheatre.com
Photos by Robert Day