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97

Day one of the Fringe and it’s already huge and hot. There’s a steady rush of theatregoers outside the Pleasance Dome, already in the process of being apportioned into audiences, whilst inside Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky’s new comedy-drama “Impossible” is already playing to full houses.

Impossible” is set in the 1920s and it concerns itself with an encounter between the bestselling author Arthur Conan Doyle (Phill Jupitus) and the pioneering magician Harry Houdini (Alan Cox). The pair quickly wear out their new friendship over spiritualism. Khan and Salinsky successfully put across the circumstances which had once rendered a dispute over spiritualism rather more urgent than a quarrel: the context, which is perhaps difficult to understand today, that in the 1920s spiritualism was typically viewed by its adherents as a revolutionary movement. This is why Doyle and Houdini’s wrangle was almost as bitter as that between the Reds and the Whites in the Russian Civil War. Two wholly incompatible worldviews had collided and there was only room in the world for one of them.

Doyle had created the scientific superman Sherlock Holmes, probably the most inspiring scientist in Western literature, and yet by the end Doyle was attending séance after séance. He apparently championed every medium who he ever met. Writing forty or so years earlier, Frederick Engels had argued that spiritualism, “the most barren of superstitions,” had flourished amongst British scientists due to their tradition of empiricism. Engels cited the examples of Isaac Newton (who had considered alchemy to be the climax of his life’s work), and the eminent Victorian scientists Alfred Russel Wallace and William Crookes, who had become just as spellbound by the occult as Doyle. Luckily, however, some lingering sense of the sacred meant that Sherlock Holmes was never wheeled out into literature to endorse Doyle’s spiritualism. The “betrayal” of Atticus Finch would be nothing by comparison.

We are told that Doyle has gained comfort from spiritualism following the death of his son in WWI, but Jupitus’ performance defuses the cliché by attributing a considerable amount of Doyle’s belief to sheer, insufferable pig-headedness. Doyle, of course, conversed with the dead through his second wife Jean Leckie and strangely his first wife remained silent during all of Jean’s séances. Much of the interest of this play comes from seeing whether the increasingly exasperated Houdini will crack and throw a punch at Doyle. I was initially unconvinced by this Doyle – Jupitus has got the moustache right, but his voice is like a muddy stream and it is lacking the authentic Doylean gurgle. I suppose, though, that Doyle’s Goon Show voice would be too startling to put on stage.

“Impossible” is an intelligent, easygoing play, and one which is obviously intended for those dependable middle-class hordes who watch QI and listen to Radio 4 teatime quiz shows. But the jokes are not regular or sharp enough to render it a comedy, whilst the drama, even with moments of arresting magic from Houdini, is too safely contained. It would be interesting to see how the completely cynical psychic investigator Harry Price might fit into this play, and yet “Impossible” is happier in the company of the adversaries’ wives (Deborah Frances-White/Milly Thomas). Not enough is made of these women’s characters and stories to provide sufficient drama; Houdini’s grief for his mother, which supposedly gives his scepticism its outrage, seems to be abruptly tacked on to the story.

The crisis caused by Jean’s dishonesty is brought down with a joke about Houdini’s mother posthumously learning English. The show concludes with a joke about cricket. It is altogether too cosy, and more adventurous writers might have granted its fascinating characters more of an afterlife.

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