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By • Northeast
Sherlock Holmes is such a theatrical character that dramatisations of his adventures have always been inevitable, but the process is not without its problems and key decisions. Most of the best-loved stories (The Hound of the Baskervilles an obvious exception) are too short to provide material for a full-length play or film, then there is the question of period: contemporary or Victorian horse-drawn-cabs-in-a-London-peasouper? The first highly successful Sherlock Holmes play, by William Gillette, combined several stories while updatings include Basil Rathbone combating the Nazis and, of course, the current BBC Sherlock. Then, of course, there’s the whole question of how seriously to take Holmes: Gene Wilder’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother is probably the best-known spoof of the world’s greatest thinking machine!

Adrian Lukis (who plays Holmes’ brother Mycroft) and Victor McGuire (Inspector Lestrade) have no doubt about Sherlock Holmes: the Best Kept Secret by Mark Catley which opens this month at West Yorkshire Playhouse. Adrian describes it as “a brilliant new play, written along mainly traditional Conan Doyle lines.” Victor adds that, though it’s an entirely new play, it uses characters from previous Sherlock Holmes stories, apart from Holmes and Watson, of course.

Inspector Lestrade puts in an appearance in so many Sherlock Holmes stories that it’s perhaps inevitable that, in many versions, he has become the scapegoat for police bungling, though in fact Sherlock Holmes, generally contemptuous of the police, always praises his energy. Victor reassures me he gets a fair deal here:

“We’re playing him so he’s not the bumbling idiot he was in the Rathbone films. Lestrade is described as the best of the rest. He is the law that Sherlock Holmes needs.”

The character of Mycroft has been developed in the play to emphasise the fraternal connection. The Brothers Holmes are clearly a formidable intellectual powerhouse, as Adrian explains:

“I decided that in the stories he was a genius, but couldn’t be bothered getting off the settee to do anything. I’m not really doing that. What Jason (Durr, playing Sherlock) and I keep talking about in rehearsals is that the two brothers are very clever men, very articulate and they have forensic brains and intellects. There’s a section we’ve just been rehearsing where they say goodbye to each other, possibly for the last time, and they’re embarrassed at having to talk emotionally to each other, which I think is true to that period of England. Mycroft is an extreme version of Holmes; if Holmes is somewhat detached, unemotional and forensic, Mycroft is another degree beyond that.”

The most intriguing returning character is Irene Adler who figures large in the Holmes legend despite actually appearing in only one story, A Scandal in Bohemia. In the famous line from the story, “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.” She is the intelligent, beautiful and daring adventuress who outwits Holmes, so what can we expect in The Best Kept Secret? Well, Victor tells me, times have changed for both of them:

“When we first see her in this, she’s down on her luck. So is Holmes. It’s two years after his near-fatal confrontation with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls and he’s not investigated a case since. He’s still in the apartment, but he’s struggling to find a way to pay for it. He’s become a kind of recluse.”

Adrian adds, “Holmes is going down a dark path of solitude, depression and melancholia and this case brings him out.”

So what is this case? Clearly the actors have no wish to betray the details of the mystery (Victor emphasises how clearly the text and production enable the audience to follow the clues to the solution), but they are prepared to admit that at the outset Mycroft is in prison accused of betraying the British government and Holmes’ desire to prove his brother innocent drives him out of his torpor.

Both of them are clearly enthused by the play and the production: Jason Durr’s performance (“awesome”, says Victor), Nikolai Foster’s direction (in Adrian’s opinion, this is one of the happiest and most open productions in his experience), the world-class special effects. This will in no way be a light frolic through familiar material. The word “dark” occurs several times to describe the play, though we are promised some humour, and the respect for the original is evident. The Victorian period is re-created symbolically in Michael Taylor’s fantasy “steampunk” set designs and literally in costumes and dialogue.

The language, explains Adrian, is “ornate, like Conan Doyle’s. People speak brilliantly in beautifully balanced sentences.” Just now and again, however, a surprisingly modern sentence brings in a 21st century viewpoint:

“Lestrade says at one point,” adds Victor, “after the brothers have had an incredibly intellectual conversation, ‘I bet it was a laugh a minute in your house, growing up.’”

Sherlock Holmes: The Best Kept Secret runs at West Yorkshire Playhouse from 18 May – 8 June. For further information visit www.wyp.org.uk.


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