HOLMES AND HOKUM, FRIENDSHIP AND GRIEF
Good to start the Fringe-blitz with a winner . (Not that it was the first one that hit me as I lurched off the Caledonian Sleeper, but more of that later). I would rather rejoice in a fabulous return to form by writers Tom Salinsky and Robert Khan, whose COALITION I loved, but whose KINGMAKER last year, a Boris-fable, didn’t quite ring the bell.
This one abandons modern politics to dive back into the 1920s, with such thematic sharpness, entertaining brio and artfully strong production values – all neatly contained within an hour – that it gets my first Edinburgh-Five. Hurrah. From the moment when we all settled down to a backdrop of archive film – magic-tricks, muttonchop whiskers, old Sherlock Holmes clips of Basil Rathbone – the mood was set; in the opening scene a séance promised a pleasing ghostly Edinburgh creepiness, which is then neatly subverted by the actual story, which is not without seriousness.
It draws on the real friendship of the American Harry Houdini, great magician and escapologist, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Houdini, realized by Alan Cox with gorgeous energetic suavity, is a showman to his fingertips, seen doing one of his own fake seances with his wife Bess (Milly Thomas), talking of “beyond the morbid veil” etc. But Houdini knew it was hokum, and that there was nothing supernatural in his magic tricks and escapes either: only graft, practice and skill. But he hugely admired Conan Doyle for the rationality of his Sherlock stories; and when the great man comes backstage – Phill Jupitus gloriously auld-Scottish and orotundly admiring – they become friends.
But Doyle, who has lost a son, believes in spiritualism, frequents mediums including his own wife (Deborah Frances-White) , and lectures about it . He also of course was taken in by the “Cottingley Fairies”, also dramatized here a couple of years back.
Houdini is horrified, stops doing his fake seances onstage, and artfully exposes one of his friend’s pet mediums , beginning a mission to expose others as mere conjurers like himself. But Doyle is muttonheadedly convinced of communication with the netherworld, even believing that Houdini himself has a secret supernatural gift and dematerializes in his water-tank performance. The friendship starts to crumble. A deeper question slants through, relevant to eccentrically religious people and sceptics today: is it right, asks Bess Houdini, to try and disabuse someone of a comforting belief? Should grief outrank rationality? In a painful scene Doyle sets up a seance for Houdini to talk to his late mother, and the showman angrily debunks it; opening the other question of the morality of faking conversations with people’s dead relatives at all.
It’s neat, sharp, brief, entertaining and full of well imagined lines, especially as Houdini gets aggravated by Doyle’s stubbornness (“And half of his Holmes stories he cribbed from Edgar Allan Poe!”). A shocking (real) event changes the mood, no spoilers for those who haven’t read about Houdini’s life. It opens the way for Khan and Salinsky to create a really spooky shock ending. A temptation which, praise them to the skies, they utterly reject. They end on a very, very good joke. I’d love to see this play grow longer, and live on.
to 31 August http://www.edfringe.com