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Sherlock Holmes, the Final Curtain

by on 15 May 2018

Retiring Collection

Sherlock Holmes, the Final Curtain

by Simon Reade after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Theatre Royal Bath Productions and Kenny Wax at The Rose Theatre, Kingston until 19th May, then tour continues until 28th July

A world premiere production

A review by Mark Aspen

Sherlock Holmes has hung up his deerstalker and extinguished his meerschaum calabash. In Simon Reade’s Sherlock Holmes: The Final Curtain, now playing at The Rose on its second leg of a national premiere tour, we find him eking out his time at a cottage on the coast in Sussex, dabbling in beekeeping and fly fishing; retired, bored and paranoid.

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So, what has happened to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s consultant detective? The world first learnt about Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet in 1887 and, within a few years were on the edge of their seats, reading Sherlock Holmes short stories in The Strand Magazine. After 56 short stories and four novels published he had progressed onto the screen in the 1900 film, Sherlock Holmes Baffled. At least two hundred films have followed, with Holmes portrayed by over seventy actors, most famously by Basil Rathbone, who starred in fourteen Sherlock Holmes films during the Second World War. Within the last few years, we have had, the BBC’s television drama Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. However, with Sherlock Holmes: The Final Curtain, there is a feeling that the concept is running out of steam.

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It is 1921, and the BBC has started a new service, wireless broadcasting. Dr Watson, now a psychoanalyst, has been invited to present a talk on the fledgling service, and he tells about an incident that occurred a few years before, when a dead body of a young woman is discovered on Holmes’ private beach. Sherlock Holmes: The Final Curtain, takes its inspiration from The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane, in which the mysterious means of death of a body found on a Sussex beach is solved by Holmes as being the result of a sting by Cyanea capillata, the lion’s mane jellyfish. However, in this story, the venom is not from jellyfish, as first thought, but from bee stings. It seems that Holmes’ current paranoia is justified: someone is trying to frame him, and he suspects that it is by way of revenge for the death of Prof Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls, some three decades previously.

This could have been a promising start for a sequel, but Sherlock Holmes: The Final Curtain is full of inconsistencies and confusions, where there could have been intriguing twists, and has a thin plot, and where there could have been verdant opportunities the seeds of promise fail to germinate. There are not one but two irrelevant codas to draw out.  Moreover the plot is contained within the portfolio of Watson’s wireless broadcast. The broadcast serves to show how Watson is embracing the new technology of the twentieth century, as opposed to Holmes who is distrustful of it, although it serves him well in the denouement of the plot.

Timothy Kightly’s Dr Watson is warm and avuncular and Kightly takes up the opportunities to develop the character. In the radio studio, he has some telling conversations, about the pace of change in technology that could easily echo eighty years on in our own time, “it all moves so fast”, with Rose, Anna O’Grady’s icily supercilious BBC producer. She explains why she and the announcer are in black tie, “the listeners sense it”.

The story proper, within the story narrated by Watson, starts on the Sussex shoreline with Detective Inspector Newman, played brusquely and efficiently by Lewis Collier, examining the body on the beach, together with Sherlock Holmes, of whom Newman is acutely suspicious. He scoffs when Holmes pulls out the famous magnifying glass and boasts that he can identify all 184 types of pipe tobacco … there are 250 replies Newman … and the 42 different patterns of bicycle tyres. “We know it is a Dunlop”, retorts Newman. Holmes clearly has not kept up his Continuing Professional Development. However, Holmes gets his own back by pointing out the dead “man” is in fact a young woman, Tilly Simons, whom he had recently interviewed for a domestic post.

Unfortunately the enervated plot is not helped by a lacklustre set. To be sure, designer Jonathan Fensom’s set dressing of 221B Baker Street is well studied for the period, as are the costumes, but that’s all we get. Other locations are played out on the apron, front of curtain. The BBC studio is mocked up with a few props, a period microphone and a bust of Aristotle (that we later see parked at the back of 221B), whereas for the Sussex shingle, we have to be content with a breakup gobo projected on the front tab. Neither is the production well served by the stage crew: clunky scene changes and misdirected smoke machines lead to a less than slick presentation.

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Holmes has been enticed back to 221B Baker Street by Mrs Watson, who has also come to the Sussex beach. She is living in adjacent rooms, although now estranged from her husband Dr Watson and using her maiden name Mary Morstan. (Sherlock Holmes aficionados might wonder why she is still around some years after her death.) Ostensibly Mary’s reason is that she is troubled by the apparition of her son James Watson, who was killed in the Great War. Arthur Conan Doyle had a notorious obsession with the supernatural and became a spiritualist, so probably would have approved of this plot development. Indeed we do see James Watson as a Pepper’s ghost, and the programme does credit a “magic consultant”, John Bulleid, but this may well be for the levitation of a table during a séance, which did indeed draw a gasp from some of the audience.

Holmes’ return to his old haunt, so to speak, at 221B is auspicious as it is on the thirtieth anniversary of the traumatic Reichenbach Falls incident, and Holmes paranoia is sufficiently aroused for him to arrive heavily disguised as a poor Irish patient of Dr Watson in his practice as a psychoanalyst. He also takes the precaution of inviting his brother, the indolent and insouciant Mycroft Holmes, to the séance. Roy Sampson gives an entertaining portrayal of Mycroft, who seems to get the best lines, but lines suitable to a self-confessed cynic. (He does after all reside at his club, named after Diogenes, the very first cynic.) He describes himself as “generally omniscient”, and even in retirement still carries out some sub-rosa assignments for the government. He has some witty one-liners, as sharp as his well-cut suit and fetching spats.

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And talking of spats, it is with Mary Watson that the dramatic tension lies. Mary is an aloof and haughty feminist, active in the women’s suffrage movement, and the antithesis to the misogynistic Sherlock Holmes, who openly states, “Women have seldom been an attraction to me, for my brain has always governed my heart.” Liza Goddard plays a gritty but unconvincing Mary, a role which deserved more depth.

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Robert Powell, who plays the eponymous Sherlock Holmes, is possibility an even better known and respected actor, but fails to ignite the role with the charisma and psychological insight that the part demands. He rather ambles through the role, proficiently yes, but without inspiration. Nevertheless, he has some fun with the Irish disguise and with a very competent Galway accent, and there is some nice banter with the Watsons’ housekeeper, Miss Hudson, daughter of Holmes’ former chatelaine, another role by Anna O’Grady, in a chirpy cameo.

Director David Grindley won a Tony Award for his Journey’s End, and has previously worked with Robert Powell and Liza Goddard in an acclaimed production of Alan Bennett’s double bill Single Spies, so it is disappointing that this production does not deliver its anticipated punch.

The problem possibly lies in the over-stretched script, which lacks the acumen of Conan Doyle in packaging convolutions without confusion. It also feels under-researched, lacking veracity. Would Americanisms like Mycroft’s “discombobulate” or Mary’s “raising children” have been in the Conan Doyle vocabulary? And then there are outright errors, such as muddling Twelfth Night, the eve of Epiphany, with Epiphany itself. This may be being picky, but it is illustrative of the general messiness of the script, which comes overwrapped in its wireless broadcast conceit. The previously mentioned two irrelevant codas come after the denouement of the play, when in typical detective fiction mode, the resolution of the mystery and explanation of the clues is served up neatly gift-wrapped by Holmes. Then follows a scene in a barber’s shop, “a sanctum where women cannot enter”, where Holmes and Watson philosophise about Epiphany moments. Then finally another contrasting scene with Mary in a lunatic asylum philosophising about motherhood.

These codas have no integrity with the rest of the play, unless we regard the whole as a piece of metadrama, which self-references with little tells, where Mycroft refers to Sherlock as being “like a demented actor” and Sherlock in his Irish psychiatric patient disguise quotes Jaques’ speech from As You Like It, life like an actor “struts on the stage”. If the play is intended as a metaphor for itself, sitting in its very title Sherlock Holmes: The Final Curtain, then most of us will have missed it. Otherwise it would be timely if Sherlock Holmes extinguished his calabash and hung up his deerstalker.

Mark Aspen
May 2018

Photography by Nobby Clark




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