How do you go about staging the complete adventures of Sherlock Holmes?
It's a question even Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional pipe-smoking detective hero himself might have trouble with. Nevertheless, it's one which the members of comically inclined theatre troupe Peepolykus asked themselves when they decided to make a new show. Audiences may or may not find an answer in The Arthur Conan Doyle Appreciation Society, a new piece scripted by Peepolykus founders Steven Canny and John Nicholson, which opens this week at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, whose artistic director, Orla O'Loughlin, directs.
"We knew that we wanted to write something about Arthur Conan Doyle, and we thought it might be an interesting idea to try and fit every Sherlock Holmes story into one thing," says Nicholson, who, alongside Peepolykus regular Javier Marzan and Scottish actress Gabriel Quigley, will be performing in the new show. "We came up with an idea for that, which felt like quite good fun, but it also felt like a bit of a mountain to climb."
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This idea involved Holmes leaping into another dimension to solve a case in the real world, and forced to go beyond the material world to investigate the nether regions of the universe. To do this, Holmes would require to understand the laws of nature and physics. Such notions aren't beyond the realms of fictional possibility, with all sorts of super-heroes having straddled parallel universes. One slip-up in the details of Conan Doyle's four novel and 56 short story Holmes canon, however, and the Sherlock Holmes fan base would rumble Peepolykus as liberty-taking theatrical Moriartys.
By way of a solution, Peepolykus decreed to take an equally other-worldly look at Holmes's creator. Given that for the last 20 years of his life Conan Doyle became a confirmed spiritualist, this wasn't going to be too difficult. Conan Doyle first looked to spiritualism for solace following the death of his wife in 1906, and continued his interest after the deaths of his son, brother, brothers-in-law and nephews. Conan Doyle even believed the famed photographs of the so-called Cottingley Fairies, knocked up by two little girls in 1917, were genuine, and wrote a book on the subject.
Conan Doyle went on to have a huge fall-out with world-renowned magician Harry Houdini after he refused to believe that Houdini used illusion in his stage act rather than the supernatural powers Conan Doyle insisted the American was blessed with.
"Conan Doyle devoted the last part of his life to spiritualism," says Nicholson, "and he felt very ambivalent about Sherlock Holmes, and killed him off, but was forced to bring him back to life. It wasn't the thing he wanted his literary legacy to be. He wanted his other work, and particularly his spiritualist work, to come to the fore more.
"That seemed like quite an interesting struggle, between Conan Doyle and his creation, who were both very different. Aside from all that, we wanted to put on a play about people trying to put on a play. That's what defines a lot of Peepolykus's early, more devised work, and we wanted to write a script that went back to that, and which could bring in our characters' own personal stories and struggles."
The end result is a faux illustrated lecture presented by a devotee of Conan Doyle, played by Quigley, who brings on board two actors played by Nicholson and Marzan to share her somewhat cranky obsession. The trio even have a bash at doing the collected Sherlock Holmes in a oner.
"The actors we play are using this as a bit of a platform," says Nicholson. "They know there might be people from the big Edinburgh theatres watching, and think they might put their show on."
This isn't the first time Peepolykus have investigated Conan Doyle. In 2007, they staged their own take on The Hound Of The Baskervilles, probably Conan Doyle's best-known Sherlock Holmes story. With Canny's script again directed by O'Loughlin, the production broke box office records at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, before touring the UK and transferring to the West End.
The success of The Hound of the Baskervilles arguably pre-dated current hit comedies such as One Man, Two Guvnors and The Ladykillers, both of which similarly took on already existing stories to tease audience expectations. By reinvigorating such ripping yarns with playing styles rooted in absurdist slapstick, European physical theatre and 1970s fringe theatre, these expectations were subverted enough to take these shows into the commercial mainstream.
The Ladykillers director, Sean Foley, was one half of The Right Size, another group which morphed English archness with mime show knockabout to channel a form of nouveau vaudeville. The Right Size went global with their Morecambe and Wise homage, The Play What I Wrote.
It's telling too that the movement director for One Man, Two Guvnors was Cal McCrystal. His career as a clown and mime saw McCrystal only move into directing after he was invited by Peepolykus to work on a show called Let The Donkey Go, an Edinburgh Festival Fringe hit back in 1996.
McCrystal then went on to work on other Peepolykus shows, as well as directing The Mighty Boosh's early Edinburgh appearances before going on to work with Cirque du Soleil, Sacha Baron Cohen and beyond.
"One Man, Two Guvnors is a great show," says Nicholson, "but in terms of what's going on in the physical theatre world now, it's not that exciting. But the sort of audiences who go and see it maybe haven't seen that sort of irreverence before."
In terms of irreverence, then, Peepolykus are masters at it. As for their original question of how you put the complete works of Sherlock Holmes on stage, the answer, of course, is elementary.
"If what happens in our play is anything to go by," says Nicholson, "it's a complete disaster."
The Arthur Conan Doyle Appreciation Society, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, December 6-22 www.traverse.co.uk www.peepolykus.com