“This is not like one of those Pirandello plays,” mutters Javier Marzan at the end of the first half, shortly after his fellow performers have stormed from the auditorium, “no-one is acting here.”
He then goes on to awkwardly detail the bar menu options available during the interval as if filling for time, then shuffles off into the wings.
Of course it really is quite like a Pirandello play, and the early efforts to have us believe – or at least convince ourselves, an important distinction in context – that we’re watching a rapidly unfurling PhD thesis presentation staged by tightly-wound academic Jennifer McGeary (a sublime Gabriel Quigley) and actors Javier and John (Peepolykus’ Marzan and John Nicholson as themselves) are somewhat unpicked by the air of self-consciousness that such heightened naturalism brings.
The play settles into an agreeable groove, though. McGeary’s subject is the afterlife, and as her case study she’s chosen Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the great contradiction of his life, that he created the hyper-rationalist Sherlock Holmes yet was a disciple of spiritualism. Harry Houdini himself, who should have known a mark when he saw one, once went so far as to describe Doyle as gullible, and the magician appears here alongside some gasp-inducing trickery from Nicholson.
Although not blessed with the same blade-sharp but accessible air of philosophical questioning as last year’s alternative Christmas offering at the Traverse, Jo Clifford’s The Tree of Knowledge, The Arthur Conan Doyle Appreciation Society earns most of its credit for keeping so many plates spinning at once. On one level it’s a slapstick comedy with the nervy, Brian Cox-loving rationalist Nicholson as the straight man and Marzan as the clown who stumbles in late, quickly blacking out the auditorium and setting light to the backstage area.
Yet it’s also an affectionate homage to Doyle’s writing, using the Reichenbach Falls scene from The Final Problem to illustrate how Holmes confounded death and The Hound of the Baskervilles (previously staged by Peepolykus, as here under the direction of Traverse artistic director Orla O’Loughlin) to demonstrate his final triumph over the supernatural. Beautifully designed by Anthony Lamble and others and staged with occasionally overwhelming energy and imagination, the seemingly knockabout romp by its end pulls together some thoughtful and delicate observations about humanity’s desire to come to terms with mortality and the artist’s need to live on through their work.