Arthur Conan Doyle – Man of Mystery

There's something wonderfully uncluttered and unpretentious about this particular wander down literary lane from the Mercators, one of Edinburgh’s oldest amateur drama clubs. Six performers, dressed up in an approximation of late Victorian/Edwardian dress, take it in turns to tell the biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with some quotes from the man’s work to provide a little more ‘colour’. That’s it; arguably it should’ve been listed under ‘spoken word’ rather than theatre’ – for, notwithstanding the occasional attempts at conversation between some of the participants, this is definitely an example of ‘tell, not show’. There’s certainly no attempt to ‘try anything clever’; say, for example, imagining Doyle’s most famous literary creation – Sherlock Holmes – trying to investigate ‘the mystery’ of his own creator.

This is a straight-forward enough story, simply told, with neither rancour nor particular fire.

Except… what mystery? Although Fringe show titles inevitably have to be chosen some six months ahead of time – often well before the actual productions have been written – the reality is that “Man of Mystery” hardly seems an appropriate label for Doyle. The only puzzle presented at the start is the surprising fact that the author capable of imagining the iconic “consulting detective” (a man who considered emotions to be a distraction and hindrance to proper observation and reasoning) also personally believed in the occult and fairies at the bottom of the garden. Admittedly, Doyle was far from alone in the latter – particularly following the carnage of the First World War – but there’s simply no theatrical ‘meat’ here to satisfy anyone wanting some kind of answer to that particular conundrum. (A reference to Doyle’s disagreement with arch-sceptic Harry Houdini is notable by its absence.)

Thanks to John Kelly’s diligent research, and the generally clearly-spoken performance by the cast, you’re bound to learn something new about Doyle: perhaps that he studied at the University of Edinburgh at the same time JM Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, and Robert Louis Stevenson; or that he considered his historical novel Sir Nigel to be the “highpoint” of his literary career.

This is a straight-forward enough story, simply told, with neither rancour nor particular fire. For Doyle enthusiasts it arguably offers little, but for those curious to learn something more about the man behind Sherlock Holmes, this is at least a more entertaining way to accomplish that than just reading a page on Wikipedia.

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

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The Blurb

Since 2002, the Mercators, one of Edinburgh's longest established amateur theatre groups, have presented costumed, dramatised readings celebrating famous writers such as Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Jane Austen and JM Barrie. This year we take a fresh look at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – author, doctor and explorer, documenting his life with his own words and the words of his extraordinary characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Watson, Professor Moriarty, Irene Adler, Sir Charles Baskerville, Professor Challenger, Micah Clarke, Decimus Saxon, Brigadier Gerard and many more.

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