People's willingness - or not - to believe in magic lies at the heart of Alexis Michalik's old fashionedly charming play.

In an over-plotted adventure that roams from the 1770s to the Millennium, illusions and fate are often overturned and dispelled. Was a bag on the Paris Metro stolen or deliberately left? And what of the incredible 18th century automaton that won a chess game with Catherine the Great?

Some will enjoy the reveal, some take refuge in the fantasy, and some already know the trick. But the human ability to believe in what we cannot see - like love and planetary movements - is embedded in a show that pulls off several tricks of its own, including the disappearing scarf and zig-zag girl illusion.Ham & High: Bettrys Jones as April and Brian Martin as December in The Art of IllusionBettrys Jones as April and Brian Martin as December in The Art of Illusion (Image: Robert Day)

In 1984 two strangers meet in a Cafe during the France/Yugoslavia Euros match, and end up talking about numbers, babies, and 18th Century master magician Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin. His story is woven into that of early film director and illusionist Georges Melies who pioneered special effects and sci-fi in cinema including Trip to the Moon.

There's a rough and ready energy to Tom Jackson Greaves' production played in a curtain-swagged downstairs space at Hampstead Theatre, with raised circular platform serving as illusionist's stage and a bank vault that once housed Houdin's and Melies' shows.

Playwright Waleed Akhtar translates this very French tale of illusionists, watchmakers, football success, and early cinema into humorous dialogue that almost makes you forget its contrivances.Ham & High: Norah Lopez Holden and Kwaku Mills in The Art of IllusionNorah Lopez Holden and Kwaku Mills in The Art of Illusion (Image: Robert Day)

There's a running gag about Brian Martin's December pretending not to be interested in the match, and the six-strong cast gender swap roles, pop out of curtains, pull hankies from thin air, and break into bank vaults and museums - with good comic work from Rina Fatania.

Michalak's original title was Le Cercle des Illusionistes, and while suggestions of faked film, augmented and virtual reality feel hastily introduced and underexplored, they try to bring back what seems a period piece full circle to modern relevance.

The Art of Illusion runs at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs until January 28.