In 1920, Arthur Conan Doyle met Harry Houdini. Solver of mysteries face to face with perpetuator of them. In Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky’s imagining of their tumultuous friendship, these are two men trading in fictions. Houdini is an “honest liar”, happily peddling untruths in the name of spectacle; Doyle has won fame stoking the imaginations of others, but he’s much more credulous than his creation Mr Holmes, falling prey to the fictions of others.
They’re soon split by disagreement. Doyle, an ardent believer in the supernatural, challenges the sceptical magician to prove him wrong. It’s a tussle of myth and science, a clash of beliefs. Quickly, though, the contest becomes a battle of egos as much as one of principles, each man determined to prove the other wrong.
Trouble is, the human foundation of their friendly enmity never quite convinces. Alan Cox might be every inch the showman, but his Houdini is ultimately straitjacketed by theatricality, more entertainer than anything else. Phill Jupitus, meanwhile, struggles to make Doyle much more than a wide-eyed believer, and neither he nor Khan and Salinksy’s script really prods at the complex reasons for his stubborn faith.
Theatre, like magic, depends on contradiction. We love the illusion, yet we long to see how it’s done. The master magician, though, knows when to hold something back, a trick that Impossible could do with learning. The story of Houdini and Doyle’s rivalry is undeniably fascinating, but Hannah Eidinow’s production is all show, no nuance.