Touring – reviewed at Greenwich Theatre, London
When it comes to British literature, characters don’t come much more iconic than Sherlock Holmes – and much like James Bond or Doctor Who, Baker Street’s famous consulting detective has worn a variety of faces over the last century or so (over 70 actors in movies alone, according to Wikipedia). We could be forgiven, then, for thinking he’s given us as much entertainment as we can reasonably expect from one fictional character… but then along comes Blackeyed Theatre to prove us all wrong.
Nick Lane’s new adaptation of the second Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of Four, is thrilling, funny and endlessly creative in its storytelling. It also gives Holmes a fresh new face in Luke Barton, who perfectly captures the arrogance and disdain for sentiment that you’d expect to find in any portrayal of the famously brilliant sleuth. Unlike some others, though, he’s also rather charming, and there’s often a mischievous twinkle in his eye – particularly during his exchanges with Watson – that suggests he’s much more in tune with human emotions than he’d have us believe.
Most importantly, he has fantastic chemistry with Joseph Derrington’s exasperated but loyal Watson (also the play’s narrator) and their friendship is not just very believable but completely engaging throughout. Completing the core trio of characters is Stephanie Rutherford as Mary, who refreshingly refuses to be relegated to the role of damsel in distress, pointing out more than once that she’s quite capable of speaking for herself, thank you very much.
As for the plot, it’s typically complex and intricately detailed – but Lane’s adaptation, in which six actors play around 20 different characters between them, probably makes it as accessible as it’s possible for it to be.
The gist is that Holmes and an instantly lovestruck Watson are hired by governess Mary Morstan to solve the mystery of her father’s disappearance and discover who’s been sending her precious jewels in the mail – and, more to the point, why. The case is complicated further when a body is discovered (inside a locked room, naturally) and a bumbling police inspector (Christopher Glover) insists on arresting the wrong man (Ru Hamilton), seemingly for no other reason than to settle a personal score with Holmes. One high speed boat chase down the Thames later, Holmes and Watson have their quarry (Zach Lee), and it turns out he has quite a story to tell…
To bring an ambitious plot such as this to life on stage requires no small amount of creativity and precision, and the cast of six deliver, juggling accents, costumes, timelines, musical instruments and pieces of the set as we travel across London and all the way to India in search of the truth. Tristan Parkes’ music fits the piece perfectly, and is a crucial element of the production without ever distracting us from the action. Victoria Spearing’s set is a work of genius, more than once drawing delighted laughter from the audience as it’s rearranged to become a boat, a carriage, a fort, a dock and any number of other settings. And finally, a special mention to costume designer Naomi Gibbs, who rises admirably to the challenge posed by a one-legged man.
The Sign of Four is fast-paced family fun, a great piece of storytelling with a little bit of everything: mystery, comedy, romance (and bromance), and even a bit of a history lesson – albeit one from which Britain emerges in a less than positive light. Blackeyed Theatre’s touring production is a hugely entertaining adventure, and a welcome return for everyone’s favourite consulting detective.
The Sign of Four is at Greenwich Theatre until 11th May, before continuing on tour. For details of all dates and venues, visit blackeyedtheatre.co.uk.
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