On the Lyttelton stage of the National, Eduardo de Filippo's La Grande Magia looks like a Magic Circle benefit night for Pirandello. Like his great compatriot, de Filippo is also fascinated here by the borderlines where illusion and reality come together within a theatrical framework, in this case the arrival of a master magician at an haute-luxe seaside hotel on the Italian Riviera of 1948.
Wonderfully played by Bernard Cribbins as a mix of Merlin and Macchiavelli, the conjuror specialises in vanishing tricks: the only problem is that when he makes the wife of a local aristocrat disappear, she actually goes off in a speedboat with her young lover.
So what now? Face the truth, or believe that she genuinely is the victim of a magic trick, and will at some point reappear with no threat to the marriage? As the lovelorn husband, Alan Howard opts for the latter choice, and La Grande Magia becomes a touching and haunting drama about the tricks we are willing to play on ourselves to avoid facing the unfaceable.
In Richard Eyre's masterly and magical production, Cribbins and Howard are a perfect pair: feeding off each other's insecurities, locked together as artist and audience, deceiver and deceived, until neither is any longer sure which is which, they move through a dream-like debate about the evils of total sanity and the magical possibilities of self-delusion. True, there are moments when the production seems to lose faith in the play, and desperately ransacks its minor characters for any available farce: but nobody hovers better on the edge of madness than Howard on stage, and by the end of a tricky evening we are rooting for his survival against the magical and marital odds.