a longtime French hit gets lost in translation

    (Robert's day)

(Robert’s day)

Something got lost in translation here. Alexis Michalik’s long-running 2014 play in Paris spans over two centuries in 100 minutes, weaving a complex plot around the history of French pioneers of magic and cinema. But this English version is deliberately amateurish, full of silly heists, clumsy tricks, and tongue-in-cheek British regional accents.

Director Tom Jackson Greaves is probably more to blame than adaptor Waleed Akhtar, whose play The P Word impressed Bush last year, though the dialogue here is far from brilliant. Whatever: It’s the latest in a series of Hampstead duds that recently lost an Arts Council scholarship. Unfortunately, this is also a poor start to London theater in 2023.

Above all, Michalik explores the story of Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, the son of a watchmaker who became the father of modern magic in the 1840s, and Georges Méliès, the shoemaker who took over Robert-Houdin’s Paris theater and created the first science-fiction film. The 1902 film A Trip to the Moon.

But the narrative also extends backwards, to 18th-century automatons like Vaucanson’s Digesting Duck and Mechanical Turk chess-player, and on into the 20th century.p century. Here, a pregnant safe designer named April and a vasectomized thief named December delve into a story of illusion and fall in love against the backdrop of the Euro 1984 soccer final. Their improbable romance is designed to deliver surprises.

Confused? Actually you won’t. The various plot threads are lucidly and elegantly woven and held together by the universal master of ceremonies, deftly portrayed by Martin Hyder. I imagine they seem smart, even in the ongoing Paris production.

Martin Hyder, Kwaku Mills, Norah Lopez-Holden and Rina Fatiana in a Play of Illusions at the Hampstead Theater (Robert Day)

Martin Hyder, Kwaku Mills, Norah Lopez-Holden and Rina Fatiana in a Play of Illusions at the Hampstead Theater (Robert Day)

And here’s where you can get very bored, as each quick cut between scenes introduces a new parade of swirling, fluttering caricatures. Gender roles are assigned fluidly, for comic rather than political effect: all the female characters grind or toil, while the creative men toil and wave brushes or decks of cards. It’s not the actors’ fault: they were told to do it this way.

The staging would be surprisingly simple if it weren’t so primitive. Journeys are indicated by a crackling toy coach or car waving in front of us. The year in which each scene takes place is painted on the prop or costume. The tricks invented by “illusion consultant” Ben Hart are simple and obvious.

What gets lost is Michalik’s thought that magic is a product of craftsmanship, hard work, and endless disappointments, as well as our collective need for miracles. The background of chauvinistic pride in Gallic creativity is probably better in Paris as well.

The frustrating thing is that there are fascinating things here, reality and myth: 20pThe 20th-century escapologist Harry Houdini actually chose his name as a tribute to Robert-Houdin, and tales of early slot machines and contrived visual narratives shed light on modern concerns about AI and fake news.

But the complacency and gender-based football-based jokes of Michalik’s original have been sharpened and the subtleties obscured in this misguided production. Abracadabra? abracadon no.

Hampstead Theater until January 28; hampsteadtheatre.com

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