Hiring a venue up the road from a
house dedicated to the world’s most famous detective is a good idea when your
subject is the same man. If Greg Freeman’s play can tempt just a fraction of
the tourists in line for the Sherlock Holmes Museum then this will be a big
hit. The target audience is a family one, the aim to explore Holmes as much as
deliver a mystery. The result is diverting at times but overall too
Seeing the great man on stage is the
thrill and there should be few complaints about the casting of Stephen Chance,
who does a good job. Now, when it comes to humour and Holmes, I am never a fan.
The jokes here are awful and the only excuse – to make the show more family
friendly – too obvious. Watson and an Inspector Peacock (too Cluedo) are too bumbling to add any
interest. Philip Mansfield and Doug Cooper are fine in the roles but surely
with such a small cast a chance to introduce some tension has been missed.
Instead of Watson, the real sidekick
is at the centre of the mystery, one Lucy Grendle, who Holmes comes to
‘rescue’. And providing another potentially interesting foil is her enigmatic
servant Betty. With both characters, the aim is to provide insight into Holmes’
personality and techniques – fair enough. These scenes are good and
Vanessa-Faye Stanley and Imogen Smith acquit themselves well. But both
characters are flat; even the well-meaning attempts to flesh them out feel
tokenistic, ending up clumsy and simply driving the plot.
The big effort is to save Holmes, our
hero, from his despicable Victorian times; the strategy is to dovetail modern
concerns about racism, sexism and forms of slavery. Such treatment, though, is
far from subtle. In fact, it’s preachy and frequently clumsy – it’s hard to
hear people in period costume use the term “primary carer”. Setting aside
credibility, the virtue signalling takes up too much time. Far-fetched is fine
for Sherlock but the story still needs to be the main thing. While the plot has
a nice nod to Conan Doyle’s interest in spiritualism, and some (acknowledged)
help from HG Wells, it’s simply too slight to sustain a whole play. Ironically,
this invisible thing becomes too transparent in motivation, structure and
Antic Disposition’s coup, of staging its new piece in this historic banqueting space, is just one good reason to see this show. This is the very venue Shakespeare’s lightest comedy – with its two set of twins causing havoc through repeatedly mistaken identities – is first recorded as having been performed in (check out the Tudor portraits on the back wall). But the production has further merits. A spin is provided by Some Like It Hot, Billy Wilder’s film, with action set in a hotel. The Dromio characters don bellboy outfits, the Duke is a gangster and there’s a band thrown in. You certainly get your money’s worth.
It’s a cast of actor musicians led by a Marilyn Monroesque courtesan (Susie Broadbent), which adds immeasurably to the show. I’d happily have heard the numbers for longer. Delivery of the lines is a touch slow on the part of joint directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero. Maybe there are too many ideas crammed in? The action is speedy, though, with lots of madcap running around. And there’s a nun with a ukulele – never a bad thing. Smaller roles blossom: Doctor Pinch becomes a magician performing at the hotel (Philip Mansfield is the beneficiary of this role) while the merchant (that bit with the gold chain that can drag on) is rendered gloriously shrill by Paul Sloss – the character is described as a “shrew” so why not.
The leads are athletic, with both Antipholus roles even looking alike: William de Coverly and Alex Hooper dash about full of righteous indignation and further impress by hinting how their characters’ different life stories would have made them very different men. In the servant roles of Dromio, Keith Higinbotham and Andrew Venning get even more laughs, vying with one another for the comedy edge. I’d suggest Higinbotham wins – by a chin strap – if only because Venning labours his funniest scene (although his trumpet playing is superb).
Ellie Anne Lowe holds her own against this male quartet, amiably aided by Giovanna Ryan. There’s less attempt to adapt these ladies of Syracuse, but the roles are well thought out. Love is the theme, after all there are three married couples at the end, and Lowe makes her marriage convincing. If the whole production is more romantic than raucous, it’s a fair price for such charm.