As a native of Edinburgh, it is natural that the most famous creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will feature frequently as a subject of the productions of the Festival Fringe of Scotland’s capital with several competing Sherlock Holmes shows running this month, but it is rarer for Sir Arthur to feature as a character himself.
Written by Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky and directed by Hannah Eidinow, Impossible charts the friendship of Sir Arthur (Fringe regular Phill Jupitus) and his contemporary and peer Harry Houdini (Alan Cox) from their first meeting following a London performance by Houdini through the rift that develops from their opposing beliefs, ultimately irreconcilable.
A stage magician and illusionist, Houdini used aspects of the spiritualist movement in his act, leading Sir Arthur to believe he himself was a supporter who could become an ally in his own efforts to promote the movement; rather, Houdini was a sceptic, an entertainer who openly told his audiences he was going to fool them.
The play opens with archive footage unspooling in flickering monochrome on the back wall while a Victorian parlour is laid out before, leather padded chairs and a scarlet patterned tablecloth with a lit candle and framed photograph atop; throughout the play the screen is used to extend and enhance the minimal set.
The arrival of Houdini brings the audience into the play, acting as the tools through which he plies his trade, and for reasons of expediency the following séance is curtailed, the trance obtained too quickly, the connection to the channelled murdered girl lost before she is able to name her attacker because the medium cannot reveal what she does not know.
Both Houdini and Sir Arthur are investigators and observers, and the famed writer is correct in his post-show observation that “nothing that you shared could not have been gleaned.” But while Houdini unmasks those fake mediums who would prey on the credulous, his refusal to reveal his own methods only continues to convince Sir Arthur, desperate for comfort following the death of his son, that he does indeed have power to contact the beyond.
As the animated and vital showman Houdini, Cox’s performance is the larger of two leads and it is rightly his show; as the writer Doyle, Jupitus is by his nature the wizard who remains invisible behind the curtain, yet he does not push the role, instead delivering his lines without ever seeming to feel them, perhaps aware he cannot compete with Cox and so not bothering to try even in his final monologue, a tribute to his fallen friend devoid of feeling.
Of the supporting cast, Milly Thomas and Ed Coleman are both understated but appropriate in their roles, and like Cox and Jupitus are beautifully costumed in period, yet as Lady Jean Doyle, bizarrely robed in what looks like offcuts thrown together and wearing what appear to be army surplus boots, Deborah Frances-White displays the sparkling talent and stage presence of a side of boiled ham, lacking any of the conviction required for the audience to believe her husband could be taken in by her alleged powers.
Where so many Fringe shows need cutting, with scenes functional to the point of abruptness this one needs the freedom to breathe, Houdini himself demanding that during his underwater escape routine that the curtain remain concealing the water tank remain in place for a full three minutes, understanding the importance of commanding the audience’s full attention if tension is to be built.
With the sound effects of knockings and bells broadcast over the theatre’s loudspeakers rather than created live and out of sight, disappointingly no attempt to recreate the illusions as they would have been performed for contemporary audiences is made. Rather than a satisfying and complete piece of theatre, this instead feels like an abbreviated trial in preparation for an expanded London run; while that will undoubtedly be superior, the current production feels incomplete and disingenuous and can be recommended solely for the superb Alan Cox.