It’s always a pleasant surprise when you turn up at a theatre expecting one thing only to be greeted by something infinitely better.
As a huge fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle I was curious as to how the ambitious, but intimate, Jack Studio Theatre in Brockley, South London, would stage its festive horror offering, The Hound of the Baskervilles.
A few years ago, the Brockley Jack re-introduced the traditional spooky Yuletide story, so beloved by Victorians, to offer an alternative to schmaltzy pantos and Dickens’ classics, and they have been a sell out each Christmas.
Baskervilles is no exception. You’ll have more luck finding a golden Wonka ticket than getting your hands on one of the Jack’s blood red offerings.
So I turned up expecting a nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat thriller featuring Sherlock Holmes, Dr John Watson and a bloody big hound from hell – and ended up falling about laughing through one of the funniest shows I’ve seen in ages.
Steve Canny (BBC) & John Nicholson (Peepolykus), both experienced and versatile, award-winning writers for TV and the stage, have come up with an adaptation which is a hilarious spoof but also keeps the integrity of the original story.
And what makes it even funnier is that it is performed by a cast of just three – Joey Bartram, Adam Elliott and Andrew Fitch – who play all the characters in the story.
They are aided and abetted by the Jack’s secret weapon, top sound designer Philip Matejtschuk, whose atmospheric effects are extraordinarily good, whether they be realistic wildlife and background noises, creaking garden gates or even the satanic howling of a demonic dog.
Baskervilles, one of literature’s most terrifying tales, starts off traditionally with Sir Charles Baskerville dying of a heart attack after coming face to face with a terrible beast out on Dartmoor.
But almost immediately the audience is thrown a curve ball as Bartram’s arrogant, pompous Holmes stops the proceedings to introduce the cast, explain what’s going to happen, and then says he has to read out a warning asking that anyone of a nervous disposition should leave “because a person had died”.
“It’s bloody scary,” ad-libs Fitch (Baskerville).
Charles’ friend, Dr James Mortimer (Fitch again) confirms that the squire died of “a heart attack of the heart” and pawprints of “a gigantic hound” (dah-dah-dum!) were found.
“Crikey!” Says Elliott’s Watson.
All three men are consummate comic actors, ad-libbing seemlessly, going off-script for extra laughs and bringing the house down with their character portrayals.
Bartram makes an exceptionally good Holmes (note to the BBC should Benedict decide to withdraw from the role), proving expert at raising his left eyebrow to express contempt, but he also excels in playing a daft yokel, a railway ticket inspector (keep those tickets handy if you’re in the front row), and femme fatale Cecile Stapleton who tries to save heir, Henry Baskerville, from the beast.
Elliott’s dead-pan and naive Watson is spot on but he makes a memorable peasant in a double act with Fitch.
The trio’s quick-fire wit and tongue-in-cheek humour veers close to Python territory at times but it also reflects the off-the-wall, verbal and visual ingenuity, that hit comedy team Peepolykus is known for.
Director Kate Bannister has included abundant opportunities for silly comedy and slapstick and has created a production that is wonderfully daft and inventive.
It even includes a bizarre moment after the interval when an irate Bartram, seemingly upset by an interval Tweet sent by an audience member, insists on re-running the entire first Act – at speed.
It’s elementary that the dogged detectives get their man – and beast – but, my, we have fun watching in the chase.
The Hound of the Baskervilles runs at Jack Studio Theatre until January 7.
- The Hound of the Baskervilles
Sherlock Holmes & Dr Watson are dogged detectives on the scent of a mystery in Steve Canny & John Nicholson’s ingenious and inventive horror spoof, The Hound of the Baskervilles. You’d be barking mad to miss it.