In the late nineteenth century, spiritualism was the new rage, spreading across America on the back of the Fox sisters, Maggie and Kate, who claimed that they could communicate with the spirit world via messages coded in the rappings they heard. A decade later Ira and Willie Davenport began touring America before turning their attention to Europe, and in this new theatre production based on that period, Glasgow based visual narrative company Vox Motus ask the question – what would a person have to be running from before they would choose this life, subsisting on the need for closure of the grief stricken, risking the disgrace of exposure with every performance?
The play opens in the parlour of Lady Noyes-Woodhull, where the brothers have set up their spirit cabinet. Anxious for news of her husband who is missing in Africa, fearing the worst, she has turned to spiritualism, but is not blind in her grief. Sceptical of the claims of the brothers’ impresario, Mr Fay, she is aware that a wealthy widow will attract the attention of the unscrupulous and demands to know the scientific basis that underlies their method, yet still she seeks, if not comfort, at least closure. “Every failure teaches us to look elsewhere. Every disappointment fuels our search.”
With members of the audience invited on stage to participate and act as witness in the brothers’ demonstrations of their powers, the show begins with the introduction of the Ryan Fletcher as the elder Ira, shrewd and showmanlike, and Scott Fletcher as Willie, introverted and unstable, but very much the controlling force in the partnership, being the one who may have a direct link with the beyond. The opening illusions are simple parlour tricks, but they are only a prelude to what will unfold.
In impressive staging, the brothers’ lives are revealed to the audience as the cabinet opens up, inviting us to see the brothers as children, their parents played by Gavin Mitchell and Anita Vitesse, doubling their roles as Mr Fay and Lady Noyes-Woodhull, and Kirsty Stuart as their sister Katy, whose influence will affect their lives, with Willie’s belief in her continued presence the coping mechanism that sustained him after her unexplained death.
The tension between the brothers builds as they are forced to complete their engagement for Lady Noyes-Woodhull; Ira promises her questions will be answered if she can let go of the scepticism that took a harsh blow when a voice from her past spoke directly to her from the spirit trumpet. “Your loved one awaits you in the spirit cabinet – but you must believe,” he says, but Willie’s deteriorating behaviour and increasingly tenuous connection with Katy’s memory threaten both their personal and professional relationship.
Every aspect of the play is convincing and well crafted, from the flashbacks that spring from the spirit cabinet, as though the brother’s entire past is contained within those wooden boards, through the performances of the entire ensemble, the scene and costume changes frequently achieved without characters leaving the stage by any visible means, the live soundtrack provided by Phamie Gow and Jed Milroy, but most spectacularly the séance itself, the table rising from the floorboards, spinning across the floor, an effect achieved by no apparent means.
Vox Motus artistic directors, Candice Edmunds & Jamie Harrison, who originated the show in conjunction with writer Peter Arnott, admit that their initial concept had been much more of a magic show, playing in a small bespoke parlour to an audience of twenty at a time, but it is fortunate that their production expanded to a major theatre engagement that is still evolving through each performance.
The Infamous Brothers Davenport concludes its run at the Edinburgh Lyceum Theatre on 11th February, then moves to Glasgow’s Citizen Theatre from 14th to 18th February, then finally to Eden Court Theatre in Inverness from 22nd February to 25th February