THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES
Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Friday 22nd October, 2021
This stage adaptation by ‘Mark W’ of the most famous case of the Baker Street detective is doggedly faithful to the Arthur Conan Doyle original, down to the chapter titles that separate the action into sections. As in the book, our narrator is Doctor Watson (Alex Nikitas), recounting the tale while the rest of the cast of four play multiple roles to populate the stage. James Nicholas’s Holmes is spirited and arrogant, brimming with verve. He has the barefaced boldness to portray Barrymore the butler without the beard for which he is noted, but I find this doesn’t irk me as much as it might—the characterisations are so different, so vivid.
Becoming a fixture at the Blue Orange, Richard Buck returns again to portray Sir Henry, heir to the Baskerville fortune and the cursed hound, along with others like a coach driver and old Mr Franklin. Buck makes a tall and handsome Henry. Indeed, this production is a chance for this trio of actors to showcase their versatility – none more so than its only female member, Emma Cooper, who along with all the female parts, gives us a Doctor Mortimer that is probably the strongest characterisation of the lot. Nikitas’s Watson remains a constant throughout, our touchstone amid the comings and goings; his Watson is a man of intelligence, a true apprentice to Holmes, and not the bumbling sidekick he is sometimes portrayed to be.
The character changes are handled swiftly and economically, with the addition of a hat and a coat and a change of stance. I know if it were me, I’d put the wrong voice to the wrong hat, my accents all blending into one. Director Oliver Hume demands a lot of his cast, never letting them leave the stage for a second. He also works hard to keep the piece from becoming static; it is rather wordy as no detail from the Doyle is omitted.
The action is supported by Michael Harris and Nathan Bower’s work on lighting and sound, with well-placed effects to add to the atmosphere. I think the show could withstand more of this, more music and atmospheric sound effects. The set, by Mark Webster, strongly suggests Holmes’s Baker Street residence, with the props and furnishings utilised to represent the other locations; we never lose sight of this being a story Watson is telling in Holmes’s flat. Like all good pieces of narrative theatre, it engages the audience’s imagination to fill in what cannot be staged.
There are a couple of moments when the energy and pace flag a little during this first night performance, but on the whole this is an engaging piece of storytelling, servicing the mystery well. The titular Hound is left to our imaginations, which is probably the best way to handle it on this occasion. To use any other method, they’d be barking.