Writer: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Adapted by: Nick Lane
Director: Nick Lane
Composer: Tristan Parkes
Designers: Victoria Spearing (set), Naomi Gibbs (costume)
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Nick Lane’s reputation as an adaptor of classic novels and novellas is secure in Yorkshire, with his excellent work for Hull Truck and the Stephen Joseph in particular, and his production of Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four for Bracknell-based Blackeyed Theatre gets most things right. It is true to the original while being a thoroughly modern production in style. Yet somehow it doesn’t spark as much as one would expect.
Perhaps it’s the original that’s at fault. The Holmes short stories have tended to have more appeal than the novels, with the inevitable exception of The Hound of the Baskervilles, with its memorable canine co-star. The actual crime-mystery puzzle in The Sign of Four is relatively slight; it’s the back-story that counts. That relies on the mystery of the East, a more fashionable theme in 1890 than now. The echoes of The Moonstone are stronger than the foretaste of the 20th-century detective story. And a specific problem for Lane and Blackeyed Theatre is that the exoticism is difficult to provide in a touring production with four multi-tasking actor-musicians to add to a dedicated Holmes and Watson.
Nick Lane, his designers, and actors come up with enough answers to create a pleasantly engaging evening in the theatre. The adaptation itself is full of clever touches: Lane offers the alternative to dreams of Empire without undermining the original story. The decision to use Dr. Watson as narrator, as in the original stories, is wise (and gets in the good gag about Holmes objecting to the way he is portrayed) and Jonathan Small’s essential narration – all stolen treasure in India, the Mutiny, imprisonment and a British officer with a past – is broken up by dramatised action.
Lane is also to be commended for going for youth with his Holmes and Watson. The Sign of Four was Holmes’ second appearance and he was, indeed, a young man, in the days when he still got a kick from cocaine. Luke Barton – with, mercifully, not a deerstalker in sight – is coolly youthful, given to friendly mockery of Watson and formidable explanations of reasoning which he delivers as to the manner born. Is it too much to ask for more signs of eccentric individuality? Joseph Derrington’s Watson comes out of it rather well. Nick Lane makes clear that Watson is not a buffoon and one of the pleasures of the production is watching him trail in Holmes’ wake in matters of deduction – but eventually get there! His romance with Mary Morstan whose father’s disappearance triggers the investigation is the subject of rather too many nudges and winks, but, after all, Mary is the future Mrs. Watson.
Stephanie Rutherford, Christopher Glover, Ru Hamilton and Zach Lee prove yet again the versatility of the modern actor, especially for their playing of a large range of instruments that bring to life Tristan Parkes’ atmospheric, often Indian-based music. They also make towers, walls and bridges out of Victoria Spearing’s skeletal designs. With many parts to play, instant characterization is essential, but we could have been spared some of the extreme accents. Glover’s Inspector Athelney-Jones, moving from caricature self-aggrandisement to a key role in the story, and Lee’s plain, agonized Jonathan Small register most strongly.
So much is done with intelligence and flair that it’s a pity that the story is somewhat hard to follow, rather than something to become emotionally involved with.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed