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Wednesday 22nd October 2008
Theatre Review | THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES | Richmond Theatre [tour]

As a child, I remember spending Sunday afternoons curled up in a zebra-print blanket watching Basil Rathbone in black and white solving crimes of the most devious nature. As a student, many years later and without the resource of my blanket, I remember watching Jeremy Brett feverishly unravelling mysteries with evangelical zeal and confidence while I smoked cigarettes and felt nostalgic for the days of the Hansom cab, steam trains from Paddington and The Times.

Sherlock Holmes is a Victorian superhero, a man possessed of extraordinary abilities of deduction and logic who is incomprehensible, amazing and intimidating to those around him, including Watson. Before Batman, X-Men and the Marvel generation of superheroes, there were men like Holmes and Bond, his 20th century equivalent. These men represented a darker kind of heroism. If Bond has his vices women, booze and excessive risk-taking he cannot but seem rather bourgeois in comparison to Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes, a solitary, narcissistic and somewhat cruel figure, who places more value on the game than on the players, and whose cocaine and cigarette habit makes Bond look distinctly sophomoric. In a strange way, Doyle recognised the allure of his hero who, he said, diverted his mind from more serious work. Holmes' creator was as seduced by him as his late Victorian public.

It was with great disappointment, then, that I witnessed Holmes trampled on, reduced, mocked and belittled on the stage of Richmond Theatre this Monday. Only a sense of duty to this magazine kept me going through the interval, and even the teeming rain outside seemed a more welcome prospect than retaking my seat. The plot, the characters, the denouement were familiar, but the lustre and the terror were banished. This production of Hound of the Baskervilles is like listening to Mahler in an elevator.

It is infected with a sense of humour which is neither sufficiently camp nor sufficiently dark. The jokes fall flat time and time again, and no amount of comedy-face, moustache-quivering routines can make them any more amusing. As a matter of fact, by the time Watson (Philip Franks) had delivered his final line, I was thoroughly disgusted with the childishness of his delivery, veering between bumbling fool and a hyperactive sufferer from dementia. In one night, he managed to go to war with Conan Doyle's own subtle characterisation of Watson in favour of playing him like Sergeant Wilson from Dad's Army and won.

Holmes (Peter Egan) fares little better. Gone is the feverish, manic concentration of Brett, and the laconic, quintessentially English attitude of Rathbone, to be replaced instead with a leaden delivery and a hollow performance. Watson tells us how much Holmes craves intellectual stimulation as the only thing that can distract him from narcotics, and yet Holmes himself sounds like he enjoys nothing more illicit that an extra glass of tawny port in the evenings, and Egan's face lacks any expressiveness or enthusiasm. If I didn't have a row H seat, I'd say he'd been Botoxed to within an inch of his life. It is hardly convincing to think that the man on stage, more like a minor government official than the greatest logical mind of his age, would be interested in taking drugs, and when we see him with a stupidly oversized needle in the background, it is about as congruous as seeing Bond ordering a Diet Coke. Holmes is supposed to be a reality stranger than fiction, but this production bullies him into appearing as a bathetic farceur.

This production struggles to cope with the complexity and originality of Conan Doyle's tales indeed, the Holmes of the stories verges on the camp and the ridiculous, but is consistently pulled back from the brink by his extraordinary seriousness and brilliance in the face of baffling crimes. Director Robin Hereford misjudges badly. Watson's on-stage explanation of events recently passed and soon to occur is disjointed and has the sole effect of disconnecting the audience from the action, and lacks all the elegance of Conan Doyle's written narrative.

The staging is equally disappointing. Although the actors' narratives mean to convey a sense of ominous doom (which translates more like senile credulousness), the music, which could in the spirit of the least sophisticated films have injected a mood of dread or terror into the audience is misjudged. It is frequently clumsy, inserted after a verbal cue: Watson mentions the sobbing of the woman on the moor, and one second later, an audio of a woman sobbing is played. I have never sat through a performance where the music was so inept distinctly underwhelming at the most ominous points as when Barrymore (Rupert Mason) is caught giving lantern signals across the desolate moor and absurdly overdone, or when we hear the howl of the Hound, which at various points sounds like a Fiat Panda with an exhaust problem, an emphysemic wheeze and the MGM lion. In the final cinematic sequence, where the hound devours the greedy Stapleton, 'it would have taken a heart of stone not to laugh' at the absurdly over-loud music. I almost thought it was a mistake in the sound box, but having sat through all that had gone before, I would have been more gullible than generous to believe it.

Jason Millar 2008

  • The Hound of the Baskervilles is at Richmond Theatre until 25 October 2008.

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