A quirky take on Sherlock Holmes by a company who like to make things up as they go along? If panto’s not your thing, the Traverse’s unusual Christmas show might be right up your street. By Mark Fisher
IT’S April 2007 and the Duchess Theatre in London is packed for the West End opening of The Hound of the Baskervilles. The show has already been a sell-out hit at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, but with the capital’s theatre critics out in force, this particular performance has much riding on it.
So when they get to the bit where a corpse drops from the ceiling, director Orla O’Loughlin has reason to be alarmed. The next 15 minutes of business depend on the body landing on the stage. And tonight of all nights, the mechanism fails. There is no body.
“It was our big moment,” says O’Loughlin, now artistic director of Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre. “They just did the scene anyway and everybody thought it was meant to happen.”
For the actors, such mishaps are part of the thrill of live theatre. Javier Marzan and John Nicholson, the core members of Peepolykus, are steeped in a clowning tradition that values spontaneity as highly as careful preparation. When a corpse doesn’t drop, they just carry on regardless. “If something goes wrong, it’s an opportunity, it’s not a crisis,” says O’Loughlin.
Fast forward to the last night in the West End and, once again, things are not going to plan. Marzan is in full flight as Sherlock Holmes – his heavy Spanish accent only adding to the show’s playfulness – when he notices the audience being distracted by something at the front of the stage. “What’s going on, it’s raining?” he says, staring up at an increasingly heavy drip coming down from the ceiling. “So much for Victorian engineering,” he ad-libs.
Spurred into action, the actors go into improvisational overdrive. By the time the audience is forced to evacuate, they have led a round of Happy Birthday to You and performed a tap dance. “Of course, everyone thought it was part of the show,” says Nicholson today. “The audience went out for about 25 minutes and when they came back, they were even more supportive.”
Wind the clock forward again to 2012 and O’Loughlin has invited Peepolykus to Edinburgh to create another helping of Baskervilles-style fun. The Arthur Conan Doyle Appreciation Society, she thinks, will be a perfect fit for her first Christmas show as Traverse artistic director. “It feels like an appropriate seasonal offering without covering everything in tinsel,” she says. “Because of Arthur Conan Doyle’s connection to the city and the structure of the show as an illustrated lecture, it all feels so Edinburgh.”
Before all that could happen, however, Marzan and Nicholson had to find another actor to work with them. The ideal candidate would be one who would be unfazed should a corpse fail to drop or ready to go with the flow if the rain seeps in. It’s not everyone’s idea of a low-pressure job.
That’s why an audition for Peepolykus can be unorthodox. There are actors who would be freaked out to find they are in the midst of an improvisation the moment they set foot in the door. Others would be plain puzzled to be acting out a script with Nicholson while he deliberately starts dropping his lines.
Scotland’s Gabriel Quigley is not one of them. As soon as Nicholson switched into playful mode at her audition, she followed suit. “We played a game where we said we’d talk about what we did last night,” says Nicholson. “I said, ‘You stripped and climbed up a lamppost,” and she said, ‘Yes, God, it was terrible,’ and immediately understood that game.”
O’Loughlin agrees: “You’ve got to be a yes person and delight in that game and not knowing where you’re going.”
This same air of playfulness will characterise The Arthur Conan Doyle Appreciation Society, says Nicholson: “There always has to be that element. Not all the way through, because that can get tiresome, but we always like to introduce ourselves and, with this show, it’s that taken to an extreme. It’s an illustrated lecture with a lot of detail about the relationship between the three actors who are putting on the show, so we needed to find a way to just talk like we would in a rehearsal room.”
The company’s approach means you never get the same show twice, but that isn’t to say The Arthur Conan Doyle Appreciation Society lacks structure. On the contrary, the script by Nicholson and Steven Canny is as tight as any new play O’Loughlin has worked on. By the time they went into rehearsal, it was on its fifth draft.
What’s different is that underpinning the structure are a series of games. It’s the job of the actors to play by the rules of each one. “It’s quite a different rehearsal process,” says O’Loughlin in a lunchtime break. “It’s more fluid. It was a really rigorous writing process, but since it got into the rehearsal room, it’s undergone a lot of editing and additions we could only work out in the room.”
To create the illusion of freeform chaos requires serious rehearsal and discipline. “We have to be reined in, says Nicholson. “We would be hopeless without a director. We need a mum in the room!”
Neither is the show without substance. Peepolykus does not take itself too seriously, as those who have enjoyed such Edinburgh Fringe hits as I Am a Coffee, Mindbender, Let the Donkey Go and All in the Timing will attest, but there’s method behind the madness.
In this case, what fascinates Nicholson about Arthur Conan Doyle is that, despite having created so perfect a rationalist as Sherlock Holmes, he was captivated by the supernatural. The Edinburgh-born author’s degree in medicine and his early career as a doctor did not suppress his willingness to believe in otherworldly phenomenon. Having suffered the deaths in close succession of his wife, son, brother, two brothers-in-law and two nephews, he was drawn to the beliefs of Christian spiritualism and the idea of the afterlife.
He was attracted also to the possibility of other types of beings living among us and, in 1922, wrote a book called The Coming of the Fairies, inspired by the photographs (much later revealed to be a hoax) of two girls from Cottingley in Yorkshire playing with fairies. “If we could conceive a race of beings which were constructed in material which threw out shorter or longer vibrations, they would be invisible unless we could tune ourselves up or tone them down,” he speculated.
The contradiction struck a chord with Nicholson: “There’s something interesting in the dichotomy of Sherlock Holmes being this pragmatic mind and Arthur Conan Doyle having an interest in spiritualism. It reflects where we’re at today with fantastic advancements in science, yet at least half the world, it would seem, believe in the afterlife and the idea of the supernatural.
“From my point of view, unless I can engage with ideas and use theatre to explore those things I feel passionate about, then I think I would give up. With this one, I think people will say, ‘Oh God, they’re actually being serious with this bit here.’ The lecture isn’t just a springboard into comedy – it is a lecture – but it is a lecture that is a bit off-piste.”
• The Arthur Conan Doyle Appreciation Society is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 6-22 December. www.traverse.co.uk