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The Hound of the Baskervilles

by on 3 November 2021

Real Wags

The Hound of the Baskervilles

by Steven Canny, John Nicholson, based on the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Original Theatre Company and Octagon Theatre Bolton, at Richmond Theatre until 6th November, then on tour until February 2022

Review by Mark Aspen

Having once visited the Reichenbach Falls on a car tour of Switzerland, I had seen for myself where Sherlock Holmes had fallen to his death.  So, it was with dogged determination that I set out through the misty chill of a November evening to cross the moor to see The Hound of the Baskervilles.  Well actually the moor was Richmond Green and another actually was the mist.  There was plenty of it inside Richmond Theatre where the smoke machines worked overtime for Canny and Nicholson’s adaptation of Britain’s “best-loved novel”, Arthur Conan Doyle’s mystery of the fearsome demonic canine of Dartmoor. 

First written for the zany theatre company Peepolykus, this is Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles slimmed down to a sleek greyhound of a show; and just as fast.  The greyhound, though, doesn’t immediately bound out of the trap.  Part of the slimming is having a cast of just three to play all of the characters of the novel, of which there are …lots.   So before the race starts we must meet the players.

There is Jake Ferretti, who plays Sherlock Holmes, and a plethora of other characters, both male and female (sometimes at the same time), including bonkers butlers and butterfly collectors, looney lepidopterists and love interests, both frocked and defrocked.   (There really was a character wearing a dog-collar.)    Serena Manteghi is the general factotum, mopping up the London cabbies and local yokels, when not playing Dr James Mortimer and two Baskervilles, Sir Charles, deceased, and the romantic lead Sir Henry, his nephew and heir, would-be deceased if his mysterious assassin has his way.  Niall Ransome is the hapless and put-upon Dr Watson and a miscellany of other characters, of which there are …lots.

When the race is on, they are soon up to full bay.  All three actors equally give all the agility, versatility and energy that good physical theatre demands.  And this show has high demands.  The wit, quick-fire or convoluted, rattled out.   Some required a double-think: try one of Manteghi’s yokels, whose repost when challenged that he looked just like another yokel:  “That’s ‘cos he be my wife’s husband”.  There are lots of lightning costume changes and visual gags, and the sheer physicality of the performance propels much of the comedy.  They become, quite literally, bogged down in the Grimpen Mire and their attempts to escape are hilarious.  Then there is the tango, danced with aplomb aplenty between Manteghi’s enthralled Sir Henry Baskerville, and Ferretti’s hirsute take on his would-be Latin lover, Cecilia, the South American, er, beauty.  Cecilia as a name has a lot more comic potential than Conan Doyle’s “Beryl”, coerced to ensnare Sir Henry by the villain of the piece, Stapleton.   Think “Th-ef th-eel ee-ah” in the unvoiced Castilian pronunciation: far more exotic.

Many of the visual gags though come from the use of clever props or, indeed, non-existent mimed props.  A door or gate is opened and shut by the actor’s miming, cued with razor-sharp accuracy with sound effects by sound designer, Andy Graham and his operators (Graham also composes the original music for the show.) 

Similarly Derek Anderson’s lighting design becomes part of the action.  There are mysterious signals with lamps and torches from the turrets of Baskerville Hall.  Plenty of opportunities for darkness to fall.  And there’s all that mist and fog.  Baskerville Hall is large three dimension backdrop, but mostly the set is furniture mounted on trucks and with some nifty transformations.  Designer, David Woodhead, certainly has his work cut out with the myriad costumes, but ingenuity comes with the stage props.

An epitome is the billiard table, built as a diagonal cross-section, on which Holmes and Watson play snooker.  The snooker cues are mimed, the sound of cue-tips hitting ivory one of those accurately cued sound effects (pun intended!).  Plus a bonus of some legerdemain in which Holmes snatches a red ball from the “pocket”.

Then there is the actor playing Selden, the escaped murder convict, who makes a death-defying leap from the flies, to land with an alarming thump on the stage … breaking his neck!  Death is not to be defied it seems.  Just as well that the fourth actor is a (quite realistic) mannequin.  However it does give the excuse of much contortions with the “body” and plenty of black humour.  Black humour runs through the show, witness also the yokel’s bleating sheep hidden in a writhing sack, soon to become non-writhing lamb.  (We won’t go there!) 

You would be barking mad to do so, but if in case for any reason you should arrive at the theatre in the interval, don’t despair.  The whole hour-long first half is re-run in five minutes as a madcap recap without so much as a paws (whops sorry I meant pause) for breath.   Then the plot is off again at the earlier, and still very fast-moving pace, I would call it breakneck but for respect of the late Mr Selden.  Eventually it is Dr Watson who solves the mystery, but Sherlock Holmes takes the credit: he must be top-dog after all.  The eponymous Hound gets shot, the villain is sucked down into the Grimpen Mire and good triumphs (sort-of) and we come to the end of the tail (whoops, tale).  After over two hours of full-on physical theatre the whole company must be … well, dog-tired.

Yet, yet, in spite of everything something didn’t quite work, there are flat-spots, something is missing.  It took a while to put my finger on it.  What was missing was audience.  With this sort of comedy, with all it physicality and slapstick fun, there is an audience critical mass, after which the humour becomes self-perpetuating, a comedic chain-reaction.  No fault of the cast, who worked like … well, like dogs, to lift the level, but didn’t get enough of that vital spark of comedic feedback.  Such a pity as this company deserves so much better.

The concept director, Lottie Wakeham agrees with the writers that this production is not a spoof, but a well-intentioned light-hearted retelling a well-loved story.  She is right.  It is indeed a loving homage to Arthur Conan Doyle’s gripping mystery, and its iconic hero Sherlock Holmes.  And, yes, of course Holmes didn’t die at the Reichenbach Falls.  It was all a ruse so that he could secretly observe the suspects of his next crime to solve.

Which reminds me; I must go off now to Richmond Park to find out what that strange howling in the mist is all about.

Mark Aspen, November 2021

Photography by Pamela Raith

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