SPOOKY manifestations and chilling seances - The Infamous Brothers Davenport, which opens at the Royal Lyceum tonight, finds the actor Gavin Mitchell, best known as Still Game’s Boaby the barman, venturing into the world of the occult to tell the story of stage-show spiritualists Ira and Willie Davenport.
Mitchell is one of the stars of the Lyceum’s co-production with Vox Motus, which delves into the lives of the eponymous brothers, played by real-life siblings Ryan and Scott Fletcher.
It is 1862 and the gaslights are flickering. Welcome to an evening of magic and illusion. Inspired by a true story, the piece recreates the Davenports’ psychic demonstrations - furniture dances, bodies levitate and the voices of the dead resonate in the air - as the dark undercurrent of their Victorian world is exposed - the showmanship of their act contrasting with a cruel and curious childhood.
The Davenports were born in the USA, Ira in 1839 and William, two years later and their act came to prominence in 1854.
Managed by their father and local conjurer William Fay, their shows were introduced by an ex-minister who explained the brothers called on spirits rather than use trickery.
In their most famous effect, a Spirit Cabinet, they were tied inside a box with musical instruments. Once the box was closed, the instruments would sound. Upon opening the box, the brothers would be discovered, still tied in position.
The pair toured the States for ten years before travelling to the UK, where many tried to expose them as charlatans. William died in 1877, Ira in 1911. Later in life, Ira told escapologist Harry Houdini that they had never said they were Spiritualists and that the announcements before their shows were just a part of the act.
Mitchell, who plays the boys’ father (Papa) and manager (Mr Fay), says, “Born in Buffalo, they claimed they could talk to the dead and they soon became a worldwide phenomena, but they came from quite an abusive background.
“Their mother took ether and their father was an alcoholic who was physically abusive to the boys, but you have to like a character to play it, and Papa does have their best interests at heart. He does love and care for them, he just doesn’t know how to show it. In the end, these two lost souls are being exploited by two father figures, one for their talent, the other financially.”
If their act allowed the brothers to escape poverty, it also offered hope to those who came to see it. Not that everyone believed in their powers.
“Everybody wants to believe in something. That’s never changed. Even someone like Harry Houdini spent most of his fortune trying to speak to his mother after she passed away. He became obsessed with making contact with her. He truly believed it could happen. Through doing that, he exposed many frauds and what being in this play has made me realise is just how easy it is to prey on people’s vulnerability - the tricks that can be done to manipulate people,” says Mitchell.
Recreating the Davenports’ act on the stage of the Lyceum is the challenge that lies ahead for Mitchell and the rest of the company. Anita Vettesse plays Lady Noyes-Woodhull and the boys’ Mama, while Kirsty Stuart is Katie Davenport.
“As soon as you enter the theatre, you are transported back to Victorian times,” reveals Mitchell. “That’s where the show begins, and from there you have entered the world of the Davenports. Then, we play with the different worlds within that world. You’re coming to see a performance of what they did, but there is also their back story, leaving you to make up your own mind about what is true or false.
“We’re really excited because there are definitely moments of wonder that will leave people saying, ‘How did they do that?’
“Then there’s the seance. We didn’t realise how creepy that was going to be until we practised with people in the room... and that was with the lights on. Suddenly, the atmosphere became very tense. Apparently the Lyceum is haunted, so we might get a wee visitation. We honestly don’t know what’s going to happen at that point, so we have to make plans for any eventuality.
“There is every chance that some people are going to be freaked out, scared or terrified. Certainly there have already been times when we have felt the hair going up on the back of our necks and looked at each other and gone, ‘Oh my God!’
The world of the Davenports is a lifetime away from Craiglang where, as Boaby, Mitchell pulled pints for Jack and Victor, despite originally playing the role of Winston, played by Paul Riley.
“That was 1996, when we did Pulp Video,” he recalls. “My Winston was very different. He was very doddery and didn’t have long in this world.”
And so he was recast as The Clansman’s dry-witted barman.
“Apart from Ford, I was the oldest in the cast and I was playing the youngest character. So, as much as everyone talks about Still Game coming back, if they don’t do it soon it’s going to be ironic because I’ll be the one who looks older than everyone else.”
And Mitchell adds to recent speculation that Still Game could return when he says, “We all hope that will be sooner rather than later as I think most of us feel it’s unfinished business. There would have been another two, maybe three series, and then we all knew there was to be a definite ending. That is all there, so it could happen. Who knows? After all, if Steps can get back together...” he quips, adding, “...and at least we won’t have to wear lycra...” He thinks for a moment, “Do you know, as soon as I said that, I regretted it.”
A lycra-clad Boaby, Jack and Victor... a sight sure to be scarier than the Davenport’s seance.
The Infamous Brothers Davenport, Royal Lyceum, Grindlay St, tomorrow-Feb 11, 7.45pm, £14.50-£29, 0131-248 4848