The Italian quick-change artist Arturo Brachetti is offering sheer magic at the Garrick, but for once it’s not quite enough or, rather, it’s almost too much. As elegant and controlled as a prima ballerina, Brachetti transforms himself with the non-stop brilliance of an overwrought chameleon.
Two hours of pointless virtuosity is a daunting prospect at the best of times, but Brachetti, who now claims he is 52 years old, also cloaks his dazzling performance in a campaign to join his older self with his younger, impetuous genius and ends up paying tedious tribute to past masters.
Those masters are the Italian music hall legend Leopoldo Fregoli and the film maker Federico Fellini. As the first he conjures emperors and pierrots before closing the first act with a stunning evocation of the four seasons, complete with painterly scenic nods to Magritte, Mondrian and Van Gogh.
And cottoning on to the crucial fact that Fellini saw cinema as a form of circus, he quotes fleetingly from La Strada and La Dolce Vita while suggesting, for the first time in the show, that a human heart is beating underneath it all.
For London, director Sean Foley has devised a series of corny images - the guardsman, the Pearly King, the Queen – that are about as funny as a sequence on an old Stanley Baxter television comedy show, that is, not funny at all. But the Hollywood episode is some compensation, as Brachetti elides Nosferatu with Gene Kelly and pulls off the brilliant stunt of playing both Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca double profile.
Brachetti descends to the stage in a house of memories, a brilliantly executed design by Guillaume Lord, rather like the old man in the new cartoon film Up. But the more he and his invisible team of wardrobe and technical staff strain for a narrative justification, the worse the show becomes. It’s at its best in a simple hat manipulating routine of twenty characters in two minutes.
Variety is the spice of life, but variety artistes - Brachetti is neither a clown nor a comedian - are best seen in smaller doses, as indeed Brachetti himself was in the wonderfully superfluous cabaret of Y many years ago, or indeed as a Chinese Theatre vision in Tony Harrison’s munitions fantasia Square Rounds at the National Theatre more recently in 1992.