Sherlock Holmes: The Valley of Fear – Southwark Playhouse Borough, London

Reviewer: Chris Lilly

Writer and Director: Nick Lane

Sherlock Holmes is a much-loved old-school consulting detective, and Blackeyed Theatre has honoured the character with an old-school three-act tried-and-tested dramatisation. They dispense with box sets in favour of contemporary ‘suggestive’ set dressing. There are some very hard-working orange crates representing a wide range of furnishings in a wide range of settings. The company also makes the five actors do all the shifting themselves, stagehands being an expensive and unnecessary luxury.

Nick Lane takes the two parts of Conan Doyle’s The Valley of Fear, shuffles them together to dilute the Holmes-free second half of the novel, which is all about brave union-busting Pinkertons detectives demolishing a dangerous secret society that is a cross between the Masons and the National Union of Mineworkers, and plays it out with five actors, each taking four or five parts. There is the framework of a farce, with quick costume changes and a lot of running off and coming back on as someone else, but the company plays it very straight.

The straightness of the playing may be a problem. The box-set, three-act, Well-Made Play that was the backbone of British theatre for fifty years is a very old-fashioned concept, and it is a concept that has been brutally mocked by all sorts of folk. It is hard to put that rabbit back in the hat.

Joseph Derrington plays Dr. Watson with a knowing wink to the audience and leans heavily on a dozy, affable character reading with the odd spot of bluster. Bobby Bradley’s Sherlock Holmes gets to play the straight man in Watson’s routines, with the occasional intense stare into space held rather too long as his comic contribution, but only Blake Kubena, in his presentation of the foppish Detective White-Mason, gets to play wide, and that is a tiny part. He is mostly tasked with playing the heroic Pinkertons undercover agent Birdy Edwards, tough as nails despite the unfortunate nomenclature. Birdy he plays as square-jawed and upright as all getout. The company is rounded out by Gavin Molloy as a vicious mobster, and Alice Osmanski as anyone female, from femmes fatale to housekeepers. She has an inordinate number of costume and character changes, which she manages with aplomb.

The production falls between the two stools of respectful representation of a detective classic and a guying of whiskery melodrama. Probably the latter would speak to a contemporary audience more immediately and would work better with the sketched-in settings and the actor-managed furniture shifting. It is a retelling of a complicated story that winds up as respectful rather than exciting.

Runs until 13 April 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Honourable Old School Hokum

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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