La Grande Magia

For those brought up to adore Eduardo de Filippo on a diet of Saturday, Sunday, Monday or Filumena, this play is nothing short of a revelation.

A Chinese box of metaphysical conundrums is conjured with the showmanship of a grand wizard by the Royal National Theatre's director, Richard Eyre.

Now you see it, now you don't. Now you laugh and - whizbang! - you find yourself in tears.

The whole mood is set instantly with a painted curtain rising on a vast hotel terrace on the Italian Riviera in the late Thirties. A tableau of expensively-dressed figures on a floor of chequered black and white pose before the mirage of a grand hotel almost floating like a dream in the distance.

Into their languid, champagne-filled gossip arises an impressive stage magician with a seemingly impeccable pedigree and the gift of third sight.

Soon he is unmasked as a charlatan, expensively hired in an elaborate hoax to help a faithless wife elope with her lover from her overbearingly jealous husband.

Yet somehow the husband is persuaded that the trick is merely a figment of his own imagination, that he can break the spell at any time.

It is in these subsequent scenes that de Filippo's own powers as a great dramatic illusionist are given full flight, and Mr Eyre's talented cast prove their mettle by never once letting their hold on the magic slip. For underpinning all the game-playing by the defensive husband, who would rather believe in spells than face the truth, there is a darker purpose.

In a single chilling scene which follows without warning on one of the most audacious pieces of clowning by a comic policeman (David Ross) since Inspector Clouseau, death strikes.

And in his explanation of his appallingly cruel disappearing trick with tame canaries, Bernard Cribbins's charismatic maestro of the revels poses the eternal question: are we all not merely just hapless participants in the experiments of some great conjuror in the sky?

Never has Cribbins been more strikingly effective. With this role he moves up into the premier league of players.

Hypnotic, vulnerable, stylish and vulgar by turns, he is everything the author could have wished. So too is Alan Howard, already established as a heavyweight actor, yet here managing to taunt and tease and finally move us with the lightness of touch which reaches from high comedy to the deepest tragedy.

Even at the end, just when you think you have all the ends tied up, he pulls off a final master stroke of his own to outwit his magician instructor in the art of self-delusion. I was transported.

Jack Tinker

Daily Mail, 14.7.95


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