Writers: Arthur Conan Doyle, adapted by Steven Canny and John Nicholson
Director: Tim Jackson (tour), original Direction Lotte Wakeham
He’s the most portrayed human literary character in film and on TV, but great detective Sherlock Holmes is also no stranger to the stage. He and his sidekick Dr Watson make a welcome return to theatres in a revival of Steven Canny and John Nicholson’s madcap version of The Hound of the Baskervilles and while the whodunit element of the story evaporates pretty quickly, there’s no mystery as to why this production is honed and hilarious.
The show, originally written in 2007 by Steven Canny and John Nicholson and presented by Peepolykus, has seen a number of versions over the years, several of which became bogged down and rather sunken in Grimpen Mire.
This far more satisfactory incarnation is a touring version of the production staged by Bolton Octagon Theatre artistic director Lotte Wakeham and the Original Theatre Company in the summer (a version also seen in smaller scale at Jermyn Street Theatre in London four years ago) and reminds us of the skilfully crafted original with fresh confidence.
Played against a truly stunning raised 3D backdrop depicting Baskerville Hall and the Dartmoor setting (a magnificent creation by David Woodhead) the cast delivers an opening health warning for “anyone suffering from a heart condition, a nervous disorder, low self-esteem or a general inability to tell fact from fiction.”
That set is a triumph in itself, from daft deteriorating signs (“WE COME TO DARTMOO” proclaims one) to a clever piece of furniture which serves as Holmes’ desk at 221B Baker Street, a steam room and a railway carriage.
It is all complemented by excellent atmospheric lighting (Derek Anderson) and sound (Andy Graham), which includes the blood-curdling howls of the titular hound – though it has always been a slight disappointment with this adaptation that we don’t even see a shadow of the beast and only ever hear it. Red eyes gleaming at points on the 3D set perhaps?
The fourth wall is regularly broken, most notably at the beginning of Act Two, where a supposed critical tweet from an audience member persuades the cast to rush through the whole of Act One again in a matter of minutes.
Just three performers bring 20 characters from Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel to life and in the case of this tour, which stops off at Richmond Theatre this week, it’s a talented trio that nail every joke, inhabit every role, and breathlessly steer the show to such success. We are treated to a high quality team: Jake Ferretti as Holmes, Serena Manteghi as Sir Henry Baskerville and Niall Ransome as Dr Watson – who between them also bring, “every significant and insignificant character to life.”
Ferretti’s Holmes is one the purists would enjoy, with sneering swipes at his chronicling companion, manic enthusiasm for criminal detection and affable eccentricity. As it’s a Sherlock story from which the detective is absent for much of the central part of the novel, Ferretti makes the most of playing a wide range of other roles, from the villainous Stapleton and his Hispanic wife Cecile to the suspicious bearded butler Barrymore and his weeping wife.
Rather than playing any of the female characters Manteghi is called upon to play most of the remaining males and this she does with skill, whether that be the Baskervilles (Sir Henry is supposed to be Canadian but when challenged she admits she can’t do that accent), a cheery London cabbie or a Devon yokel. All are performed with energy, likeability and finesse.
Ransome largely concentrates on the role of Watson, played more in the style of Nigel Bruce’s bumbling duffer in the 1939–1946 film series than the more intelligent foil to the compulsive Holmes, but no harm in that as he catches all the humour and underlying craziness of the production.
Tim Jackson fine tunes Wakeham’s original direction to give an even crisper and dafter overall feel to what is a blend of Monty Python, Morecambe and Wise, Patrick Barlow’s stage four-hander version of The 39 Steps and Mischief’s Goes Wrong shows.
It is a production which understands and plays upon Conan Doyle’s gripping narrative, the well-crafted absurdity of the adaptation and the skills of stagecraft. The brilliance of the three performers and their ability to control the silliness only adds to the pace, physicality and fun.
Runs until 6 November 2021 and then continues to tours until February 2022