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.
Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 15th September, 2021
John Buchan’s novel has been adapted several times, each incarnation having precious little in common with the source material. Patrick Barlow’s joyful stage version borrows heavily from the Alfred Hitchcock film of the 1930s but delivers a purely theatrical rather than cinematic experience. The script is peppered with reference to Hitchcock’s films for those in the know.
The whole thing is enacted by a cast of four, led by Richard Buck, who does a great job of bringing the dashing Richard Hannay to life, dashing around the stage/Scottish Highlands, on the run for a murder he didn’t commit, and trying to break up a spy ring in order to clear his name. Buck’s wide-eyed perplexity and skilful physical comedy make him a worthy focus for the action.
Playing the female parts is Kimberley Bradshaw, mangling the English language as German agent Arabella Schmidt, looking winsome in a red wig as crofter’s wife, Margaret, and, best of all, as the romantic interest Pamela, handcuffed to Hannay and falling for him despite herself. Bradshaw’s long-suffering looks to the audience as she negotiates the tortuous corridors of a Highland hotel are a delight.
Appearing as everyone else are two consummate comedic players, James Nicholas and Darren Haywood. They both prove their versatility beyond question, often switching between characters at the drop, or the picking up, of a hat. Nicholas is great value as the treacherous Professor and Scottish hotelier Willy, as well as a host of other roles, but it is Haywood who gives the virtuoso performance, depicting characters with an arch look here, a purse of the lips there in the most consistently hilarious display I’ve seen in a long time. Together, they are a dream of a double act.
Director Simon Ravenhill doesn’t let the close confines of the Blue Orange stage get in the way of his chase scenes and his punch-ups. The action is deftly handled. This is a show that is so silly it’s actually very clever.
It does run a bit long though, due mainly to the time it can take to change scenes. While the set is almost as versatile as the actors, it can take a while to reconfigure, presenting opportunities for energy levels to flag. Luckily, the enthusiasm and brio of the players prove irresistible, and we revel in the fun of it all.
James Nicholas’s one-act one-hander tells the story of Jack, a young man who grew up in Huddersfield during the time of the Yorkshire Ripper murders. Jack, it transpires, is gay, a fact he is compelled to keep secret because his world is steeped in violent homophobia.
Richard Buck is Jack in this challenging piece. He is an affable narrator, dipping in and out of characters swiftly and with precision, using gesture, voice and stance to depict the host of people that form Jack’s story. This economic style is so effective; we can picture each person so vividly. Jack is haunted by the Yorkshire Ripper, who contributed to making his teen years so terrifying, and, as the tale unfolds, we come to understand exactly why. Buck is superb and doesn’t miss a beat.
Director Ian Craddock keeps Buck moving – the stage is full of him. Changes of location and mood are subtly signalled through lighting changes but Craddock allows the power of his actor to keep us engaged in this tale of coming-of-age without coming-out. Nicholas’s beautifully detailed writing builds to a shattering revelation. The enforced keeping of a secret – homosexuality, I mean – can have devastating effects on the secret-keeper, with long-lasting effects on mental health and wellbeing. In Jack’s case, it is truly a matter of life and death.
Absorbing, gripping and emotional with a magnetic performance from Richard Buck, this is a fine piece of theatre that deserves a larger audience.