Sherlock Holmes is a character imprinted in the canon and the consciousness of popular culture; working with him is no easy task, for the pitfalls lie in his familiarity to us, the audience. We have already formed our image of Holmes before we open a book or see his incarnation. Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville succeeds in brilliantly adapting his source material for the stage, deftly negotiating the dangers inherent in such a venture.
The theatre was still rippling with casual conversation when the silhouettes of the five cast members became visible on stage. Thunder, lightning and the audience was immediately enrapt in a gothic beginning. This alludes to some of the major triumphs in Baskerville, there is certainly an homage to the Gothic origins of Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective.
The black gates, the projected image of Baskerville Hall and the eerie fog were all tinged with the gothic sensibility of Edgar Allen Poe, the father of detective fiction. Such touches are brought to life by an inventively deployed surround sound system which wraps the horrors of Dartmoor about you.
Yet, amongst the poesque oeuvre the plays refreshing bursts of humour, laughs and gasps, have an almost symbiotic relationship in Baskerville providing a levity which is delivered with polish by the cast. Edward Harrison, Ryan Pope and Bessie Carter deserve a special commendation in this respect, for they bring to life a huge roster of characters that pivot around the central figures of Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes.
What I find especially intriguing about this humour is that it is often the gothic conventions that provide the foundation for the comedy, most notably the decrepit butler Barrymore (Ryan Pope), and his Russian wife Mrs Barrymore (Bessie Carter) who at one point in the play is likened to Frankenstein.
Baskerville achieves both its humour and horror in the realm of the gothic.
Director Loveday Ingram and her crew have also succeeded in tackling one of Sherlock Holmes’ ever-shifting features; the aesthetic appearance. The powers that be in the design of Ken Ludwig’s play have chosen to capture a classic Sherlock Holmes aesthetic that is also refreshingly free of cliché (I am talking about the welcome absence of Holmes’ deerstalker hat).
The characters are made up in a style that offers one an escapism from our 21st-century world (and perhaps a much-needed escape for Holmes himself). The visual triumphs don’t end here, the set is accentuated by the backdrop screen. The animations play out movement and scene transitions, used to especially good effect when creating the intermediary train journeys. Spectres, bare boughs and the vicious hound are also conjured in this stimulating manner (I hesitate to use the phrase ‘brought to life’).
So far, I have mentioned aspects that colour Baskerville’s world, tone and ambience. But what of the famous duo Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes? In terms of chronology Baskerville is drawn from one of Watson and Holmes’ later escapades.
Thus we begin in the midst of an already well-developed friendship. Jay Taylor (Sherlock Holmes) and Patrick Robinson (Dr. Watson) should be commended for capturing this familiarity on stage; in the comfortable environment of their Baker Street apartment, we are treated to a convivial relationship free of the now hackneyed tension that defines some of the more recent on-screen adaptations of Sherlock Holmes.
Robinson’s portrayal of the Dr. is finely tuned to the inner machinations of Holmes’ mind, giving admiration and understanding rather than the frayed patience characteristic in the more recent line of Dr. Watsons. Such camaraderie is also aided by Jay Taylors distinctly human portrayal of the man himself, his intellect is apparent in a humorous wit, with jokes at the expense of Watson and Lestrade being a component of his intellectual superiority.
Taylor imbues such humour not with an egotistical patronising pomposity, but with a devilish smile; a roguish streak lit by the thrill of the case and companionship, bringing a much more sympathetic Sherlock Holmes to the fore in Baskerville.
Classic and refreshing Baskerville is the perfect addition to the festive calendar, and judging by the huge burst of applause climaxing in a standing ovation I think I can safely say my fellow audience members would be in absolute agreement.