Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 7 January 2018
OLD DOG NEW TRICKS… After a couple of challenging takes on Strindberg, the little theatre’s new AD Mr Littler (one presumes with a “whoooff!” of relief) has booked in, and jazzed up, an ex-Peepolykus show, co-producing with English Theatre Frankfurt a mercifully un-German interpretation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dartmoor mystery. Through a dense stage fog covering the front row we see a top hat looming, hear a cry of terror and an owowowow barking. The first victim (Sir Charles Baskerville) falls dead.
Whereon his two colleagues, Max Hutchinson and Simon Kane, trip on, say “thank you, Shaun, excellent bit of mime” and help him up before embarking on a metatheatre explanation of what they – with Shaun Chambers – are going to do. Shaun will play Sir Henry, a Scottish doctor, a cabbie, and two distinct yokels, just to start with. Hutchinson is Holmes, plus the eventual villain, one glamorous Latina, a butlering couple and another yokel. Kane, in magnificent ginger sideburns which meet his moustache, is the hapless Watson and, in passing, a spare yokel. And that’s it: Lotte Wakeham, fresh off the Matilda team, directs; the writers are Steven Canny and John Nicholson.
What I like – as well as the daft jokes and a ridiculous sauna scene in sock-suspenders and full tweeds — is the disciplined slickness of it: that Reduced-Shakespeare or play-that-goes-wrong quality which lifts shows like this out of the tiresome arent-we-amusing college revue level and into proper theatre. They handle rapid character changes both with and without visible panic, have one interlude of fast-moving slapstick, and cheerfully dart in and out of realism to address us.
The production has a neat hand with smoke, the old upright-bed trick, a portable thicket, a fandango interlude and some knee-challengingly convincing sinkings into the Great Grimpen Mire. It is also the first time I learned that the Jermyn can muster the technology to drop a dummy corpse from the roof without anyone noticing it was up there. One of the best bargain 120 minutes-worth of Christmas nonsense around; and they even do two matinees a week.