Mercury Theatre, Colchester – until 22 August 2021
This is the Mercury rising, rebuilt over two years with a cool café and dance studio, modern eco-glazing and, to respect the town’s history, a solemn archaeological display of Roman bricks and copper alloy nose-hair tweezers they found underneath. It’s good sense to reopen with a family-friendly lark: Ken Ludwig’s take on Sherlock Holmes’ adventure with the Hound of the Baskervilles. It helps that many, like me, remember from childhood the atmospheric terror of the Great Grimpen Mire and the dog with shining jaws, while actually forgetting who the killer was.
It’s a jokey five-actor show in the tradition of the Reduced-Shakespeare-Company or National Theatre of Brent with a great many hats and wigs, but has some impressively detailed sudden costume changes. There are classily brilliant sets and projections by Amy Jane Cook and Louise Rhoades-Brown, plenty of theatrical smoke and unexpected trapdoor-work.
Richard Ede remains Holmes throughout and Eric Stroud a mournfully nerdish Watson, while the other three whip through 38 others from Baker Street to Dartmoor and an opera house finale. Phil Yarrow and Marc Pickering are elegant shape-shifters, Naomi Petersen is all the women and two urchins. Seasoned Vaudeville jokes abound: fake wind, running-on-the spot, an upright bed, talking portraits and at one point the traditional profile gag: an actor in half a suit and half a beard, changing character by whipping round to face the other way. Never fails, that one.
Fast small-troupe comedies like this always work best with a degree of knowing self-mockery between the players. Yarrow and Petersen are both improv veterans but this element was a bit tentative at first, maybe rusty after the long performance famine which actors, as well as us audiences, have glumly endured. But it grows in the second act, and their glee will ripen as the run goes on. The new surround-sound system, by the way, does very well indeed by the Dartmoor gales and the virtual Hound. Brrr, Grrr.