Director and writer Nick Lane’s adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s novella is at its best when it takes its subject seriously. Lane appreciates that this “pretty little mystery” is an adventure story full of exoticism and he balances this trio of ingredients well. With some sensitive taming of the more unwholesome Victorian values, the show makes for comfortable entertainment with a traditional feel.
The production isn’t without humour, nowadays it’s hard not to smile at Sherlock’s old-fashioned ways. But comedy moments – a poor running joke and a bumbling police inspector – are disappointing. It’s much better to be intrigued with Holmes as a hero. Thankfully that’s the strategy followed most and just the quality Luke Barton, who takes the part, encourages. With notable understatement and a cool edge, along with a nice notebook, Barton cuts a dashing figure.
Dr.Watson also benefits from being credible rather than comedic. Joseph Derrington takes the role and excels as a narrator, taking us through the action and guiding our responses to other characters with skill. Derrington gives a sense Watson can hold his own against Holmes so that the friendship between the two men has depth. And he does well with the insipid romantic subplot.
Lane has chosen a tough text to bring to the stage. Like many a Conan Doyle story The Sign of Four has plenty of far-fetched elements and these are, mostly, dealt with well. Presenting Holmes as a master of disguise is pushing it too far. And that we never actually see the murderer on stage might frustrate some, although it’s really a sensible move. But when storytelling is to the fore the production takes off. Atmospheric musical accompaniment from Tristan Parkes and Victoria Spearing’s flexible set create a surprising sense of luxury. And some of the hard-working cast get a chance to shine; Ru Hamilton does well as both Major Sholto and his son, while Zach Lee has a strong section explaining the mystery. These flashback scenes show Lane’s directorial strengths and his appreciation of the text as you snuggle down to enjoy a great story well told.
Until 11 May 2019 and then on tour
Photos by Mark Holliday