Chris Eldon Lee reviews “Sherlock Holmes, The Sign Of Four”, which is at Shrewsbury’s Theatre Severn until Friday 25th January.
The recent television modernisations of Sherlock Holmes – with Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role – are spectacularly terrific … but they are not the real thing.
This, however, is.
Blackeyed Theatre has taken the Victorian phenomenon right back to its roots and (with the minimum of fuss) produced a dark, gripping stage presentation of one of Holmes’ most complex cases that draws one in, on a cold, frosty night, as if you are pulling up an arm chair before an open fire and staring into the flames for answers.
Nick Lane’s adaptation is precise and perfectly loyal to the original. He (seemingly) quotes Conan Doyle’s dialogue directly, and carefully captures the playful rivalry between Holmes and Watson; the exasperation they feel at the naivety of the police, and their staunched determination to unravel such a baffling mystery. He also lays bare the racist crimes of The Raj in a way Doyle’s own audience may not have grasped, and opens up the charmingly hesitant love affair between Watson and the beautiful brunette who seeks his assistance.
The cast of six deliver Lane’s excellent script on a sixpence, swapping roles in a twinkling, and playing Tristan Parkes’ restrained Indian musical score as they do so. You don’t often see the damsel in distress playing a slide trombone!
Miss Mary Morstan arrives at number 221 Baker Street to set Holmes his “pretty little mystery” which revolves around the disappearance of her Indian Army father and the delivery of a succession of unexplained pearls in the post. She has a mysterious assignation at the Lyceum Theatre that night. Would the detective and Doctor Watson care to accompany her? And so, the quest is on, as the action moves across two continents and through several decades.
The characterisations avoid cliché. True, Luke Barton’s Holmes injects cocaine and fingers his violin; but his observational and deductive skills are presented afresh, with humour and quiet humility as he patiently explains how he knows that the owner of a retrieved pocket watch must have been a drunkard.
Joseph Derrington’s Watson is far from bumbling. He’s a thoroughly decent gent who is trying very hard to keep up. He’s mortified when he forgets his gun, and over modest in his affections for the woman he is destined to wed. Both are very much “under the skin” performances which make the two great men very human and instantly appealing.
Stephanie Rutherford is strong and statuesque, with just the right touch of feminine vulnerability to set Watson’s blood rising. Her concern for her father – and her pain at the suffering the misappropriated treasure has caused – feels utterly genuine.
The rest of the ensemble players are superb. Christopher Glover takes on the India roles with respect and dignity and allows himself to be belligerently stupid as Inspector Athelney-Jones. Zach Lee is commanding when the villainous Jonathan Small takes over the latter stages of the tale, and Ru Hamilton is quite mesmerising as hopelessly fey Taddeus Sholto.
They all muck in to rearrange Victoria Spearing’s very adaptable set of skeletal constructions, which metamorphose from Holmes’ study, to an Indian Palace and a Thames barge.
It’s a production that demands imagination and concentration. But the reward is a finely assembled, non-nonsense presentation of a classic, captivating story; no messing! They are off to China soon … so catch the show here whilst you can.