Directors: Lotte Wakeham and Tim Jackson (tour)
Adaptors: John Nicholson and Steven Canny
Filmed in front of a live audience, it’s clear from the outset that this production of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles intends to veer sharply away from the source material.
The cast from theatre company Peepolykus (Jake Ferretti, Serena Manteghi and Niall Ransome) introduce themselves to the audience. We are warned that this is a story so terrifying, so visceral, that viewers of a sensitive disposition are advised to reconsider their plans for the evening.
This is not a faithful reproduction of Arthur Conan Doyle’s tale; the logic of detective Sherlock Holmes shaken by the prospect of a supernatural killer, stalking its prey on the wilds of Dartmoor. Peepolykus are instead known for their anarchic comedy, pitched somewhere between Buster Keaton and The Marx Brothers. It is this thread that we follow: the basics of the story are there, but this is an enjoyably irreverent take on the classic.
We join Holmes and Watson (who is pushed towards the centre of the narrative here) in Dartmoor, as a young Canadian takes up his inheritance at Baskerville Hall. Sir Henry (played by Manteghi) is warned about an ancient curse placed on the family. The house is rumoured to be haunted by a monstrous, demonic hound.
While some of Conan Doyle’s stories haven’t aged too well, the creeping, gothic quality of Baskervilles lends itself to endless interpretation. This production explores the more improbable elements of the story, and digs into the humour. When Manteghi is asked why she isn’t doing a Canadian accent for Sir Henry, she replies “I can’t do one”. We go from set pieces to glorious impromptu moments, where the cast move between their main roles (Ransome as Watson, Ferretti as Holmes) and a myriad of supporting characters. While the central characters are well articulated (Manteghi’s Sir Henry, with his eccentric brand of muscular Christianity is particularly fun), the minor roles are also kept nicely specific. Ransome, in the preamble, asserts that all of his country yokels will be slightly different.
The laughs are kept coming, but this doesn’t distract from examples of clever, imaginative staging. A fast and furious recap just before Act II is brilliantly done. Using a bare stage and few props, there is a sense of play in this production that really engages the audience. We travel, at lightening speed, from the cold, forbidding moors to the cosiness of a gentlemen’s steam room. The atmosphere of the Conan Doyle / Sherlock Holmes world is the element kept intact by adapters John Nicholson and Steven Canny. The crossover from Victorian sensibility into a more modern, Edwardian age is an important aspect of the stories, not least when you’re dealing with a subject matter that floats between science and superstition.
It is difficult to bring something new to The Hound of the Baskervilles as it has been covered so many times, but the success of this production is in the balance of self-referential humour and a genuine, unmistakable fondness for Conan Doyle’s work itself.