Mediumship and magic make great topics for a modern play. Debunked enough that belief in them feels foreign to modern minds, yet there remains a lingering appeal in that evocation of the “beyond”. In Impossible, celebrity is added to the mix. We see two giants of the early 20th century – Harry Houdini, the magician who knows it’s all a game, and Arthur Conan Doyle, the peerless writer who’s strangely gullible – as they become friends, then clash about their respective beliefs.
Alan Cox plays Houdini with a cool, collected polish, a man well within his range. Phill Jupitus as Conan Doyle, on the other hand, is curiously unassertive for a man of his big personality, and not just in imitation of Doyle. This afternoon he’s jittery and unsure of himself, rushing lines, tripping over words, and sometimes not fully projecting. In this context, the contrast in styles of the two actors actually aids the play, marking the contrast between Houdini the showman and Conan Doyle the tweedy professor, but more by happy accident than intention.
The story has been well-chosen and the era effectively recreated. The relationship dynamic is worthy of exploration too; hard to imagine how any equivalent scenario would arise today, unless Dynamo and JK Rowling are in a coffee shop somewhere discussing homeopathy. There’s also, in Houdini’s opening magic trick a glimpse of what Fringe 1923 could have been. All the same, with Cox breezing through his part, and some of the supporting cast (not just Jupitus) looking a little cowed by it, on this first Saturday it still needs time to gel.