Writer: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Adaptor and Director: Nick Lane
Reviewer: Steve Turner
The second of Conan Doyle’s series of Sherlock Holmes novels, The Sign of Four is a slightly surprising choice for a stage treatment as it is built around a complex storyline incorporating flashbacks to various past episodes. Utilising some clever character changes and sticking close to the style of the original by occasionally using Watson as the narrator, Blackeyed Theatre make light work of this issue and the narrative remains easy enough to follow.
The first act is necessarily wordy with explanation of the background to the tale needed to convey the strange set of circumstances leading to the case. Here the company should be commended, not just for some excellent acting but also for their musical prowess as they add onstage live music to complement and at times enhance the mood onstage.
Luke Barton is a youthful vibrant Holmes, a man capable of fantastic deduction and detailed observation yet totally devoid of emotion lest it cloud his judgement. Morose and likely to reach for his seven per cent solution when not mentally stimulated by a case, and then springing into action and seemingly not sleeping at all when ‘the game is afoot’. He also shows that there are some feelings within, however deeply buried, when he realises that he has upset Watson.
His companion and chronicler Watson is played with sympathy and intelligence by Joseph Derrington, this is not the bumbling Watson of many portrayals but a well-observed version of the character from the books. Honest and loyal, he has an obvious frustration with Holmes whilst simultaneously holding deep-seated admiration for him. His shy, gentle courtship of Mary Morstan is particularly well delivered.
As the only female in the cast, (and the only trombone player!), Stephanie Rutherford takes on the role of Mary Morstan the protagonist of the story who is given more prominence here than in the original novel. Her portrayal imbues the character with determination whilst retaining the innocence and timidity of the time especially in her dealings with Watson. Rutherford shows off her musical skills playing various instruments alongside some impressive accents in the minor characters she portrays.
The remaining three members of the cast also show considerable versatility both musically and theatrically taking on various instruments and roles. Ru Hamilton’s camp, entitled and snobby Thadeus Sholto contrasting nicely with his irritable Sherman, Christopher Glover engaging and believable in four different Indian roles as well as hapless London policeman Athelney-Jones and finally Zach Lee who as Jonathan Small delivers a long, potentially difficult, monologue with aplomb, keeping the attention of the audience throughout.
For this production to succeed many things have to come together, not least the acting skills on display but also the direction and design. Thankfully Nick Lane’s adaptation hits the mark, refreshingly thought out with well-balanced musical accompaniment and subtle mood-enhancing lighting. Victoria Spearing’s set design works wonderfully, the sparse metallic shapes transforming from Victorian houses, via Indian forts to a Hansom cab and a boat, with the dark red drapes at the rear of the set adding to the Victorian feel.
A most original take on a work that presents its problems with regard to staging, this is a very entertaining production; thoroughly enhanced by the music of Tristan Parkes. By going back to the spirit of Conan Doyle’s novel and avoiding the more clichéd representations of Holmes and Watson this should appeal to fans and non-fans alike.
Runs until 9 February 2019 then touring | Image: Contributed