The Traverse Theatre’s alternative Christmas offering – a collaboration with Peepolykus – contains some of the elements of a traditional pantomime while offering up something a little more exciting and thought-provoking.
It begins with Jenny (Gabriel Quigley), an academic in the making, lecturing the audience on Edinburgh author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. With the help of two actors John Nicholson and Javier Marzan, she explores Doyle’s rather complex phenomenological and spiritual beliefs, examining the supernatural elements of his writing as well as his meetings with spiritualists and tricksters of the day.
The production is peppered with Edinburgh theatre in-jokes, with shout outs to King’s Theatre and the Playhouse. It is also stuffed with literary references, information about Doyle’s philosophical quandaries, and the strained social dynamics between the performers. Together this creates a texture so dense that it sometimes seemed in danger of leaving the audience baffled.
The performers leap from lecture room to the misty moors of Dartmoor, home to The Hound of the Baskervilles, to Harry Houdini’s dressing room. At times this structural collision make for an unwieldy piece of theatre, an over-caffeinated experience. The moments when it allows the audience to pause and reflect on the supernatural questions which fascinated Doyle so much feel like the heart of the piece.
The sheer density of the piece can be problematic. For those less familiar with Doyle and his work, there were perhaps too many elements thrown into the mix and the production was at times hard work.
The most successful strand sees Doyle’s belief in spiritualism beginning to unravel, and presented the audience with a battle between blind faith and cynicism, encapsulated in the relationship between Doyle and Houdini. Unfortunately this aspect of the production does not get enough time to breathe, it gets lost amid the padding of slapstick comedy and metatheatrical in-jokes.
While this chaos is mostly enjoyable, and the magic and trickery on display work well, the questions of Doyle’s spirituality feels underwritten. The use of the structure of an academic lecture lessens the capacity for dramatic nuance and shading of character.
The serious elements of the story always take a back-seat to the more pantomimic elements. As a Christmas show, this is intelligent in its subtle underpinning of faith, but entertaining as it is, it’s probably those who’ve already signed up as members of Doyle’s appreciation society, who already know his work and the particular details of his life, who will be best placed to enjoy the treats on offer.