Following a premiere at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and a regional tour, a new comic stage version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1905 detective novel, transferred this week (Tuesday 17 April 2007, preview 16 April) to the West End’s Duchess Theatre.

Set largely on Dartmoor, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson investigate a mysterious death involving an ancient family curse and a demonic dog. In Steven Canny’s new creation for physical theatre company Peepolykus (pronounced people-like-us), three actors – Jason Thorpe and Peepolykus founding members Javier Marzan and John Nicholson - perform all 20 roles, from Holmes and Watson to Sir Henry, the last of the Baskervilles, and the villain himself – but not including the Hell Hound.

Peepolykus’ The Hound of the Baskervilles opened in January 2007 at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, where it had a month’s sell-out run, and then toured to Liverpool, Winchester, Watford and Oxford. It’s directed by Orla O’Loughlin and designed by Ti Green, with lighting by Jackie Shemesh and sound by Mic Pool. The comedy is presented by Sam Mendes’ company Neal Street Productions and CMP Limited.

First night critics welcomed another comedy in the West End, though they disagreed about the quantity and quality of laughs generated by this latest Conan Doyle send-up. Comparisons were inevitably drawn between it and Patrick Barlow’s comic take on John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, the West End’s other current low-budget page-to-stage thriller in which four actors play myriad parts, with most critics preferring the earlier arrival. However, all appreciated various touches in Peepolykus’ zany offering, from mire-set sight gags to fast-forward plot recaps and the novelty of a, heavily accented, Spanish Holmes.

  • Michael Coveney on (2 stars) – “This is the latest attempt… to lure an audience by stealth into a night of ‘theatre’ on the cheap and convince them that low-budget comedy means high standards of invention and originality. Well, yes and no. In the case of The Hound of the Baskervilles… three competent actors… present a reasonably inventive comedy cabaret which extracted a laugh, or at least a yelp, from me on approximately three occasions…. Peepolykus seize on the sense of injured bafflement that always surrounds Watson and play up the melodrama with unseemly relish…. There are the usual gags in this sort of comedy style: stepping through window frames as though they were pairs of trousers, challenging your own sound effects with a false accusation, and arriving a split second late with a bit of costume missing and a wonky beard…. I just wish I found it all funnier (three yelps is not enough)… and not quite so toothless and so yesterday’s fringe."

  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (2 stars) – “Do not go to the pretty (but uncomfortable) Duchess Theatre expecting some traditional Conan Doyle spine-tingling. This comic production, although generally harmless, is on the silly side. It feels better suited to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe,or even that awful daily comedy slot on Radio Four, than the West End…. There are some clever touches… But two hours and ten minutes is about an hour and ten minutes more than required. By the end of it, I had long stopped laughing.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “Admirable though he was as both a man and a writer, few could accuse Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of being overburdened with a sense of humour…. And, to judge by the terrible jokes occasionally shared by Watson and Holmes, neither they nor their creator would have recognised a decent gag if it slapped them across the face with a wet fish…. Surrender to the dottiness (of the Peepolykus company), however, and I suspect you will be seduced…. There are a host of brilliant gags, and mime and physical theatre skills are much to the fore. The sight of Watson and Sir Henry slowly sinking into Grimpen mire is particularly irresistible. With The 39 Steps already enjoying award-winning success in the West End and now the arrival of The Hound of the Baskervilles, there appears to be a mini-vogue for tongue-in-cheek versions of classic thrillers.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (3 stars) – “From the star, you’re… you’re aware that this is as relentless a spoof as spoofs get. It should appeal to those who, like me, have enjoyed the parody of Buchan’s The 39 Steps at the Criterion, but Orla O'Loughlin’s production is a lot less tense and rather more frivolous…. Peepolykus is content to amuse, and to amuse with energy, skill and good nature. Maybe that’s enough…. It’s odd that a Basque with a pretty strong Spanish accent, which is what Javier Marzan is, should play the ultra-English detective… but this becomes part of the evening’s prolonged jollity…. Like everything else, it’s mischievous teasing – and fun.”

  • Kieron Quirke in the Evening Standard (3 stars) – “The West End has too few funny shows for us not to three this offering from Peepolykus. Using the instant appeal of this old Sherlock Holmes story to crash their way from fringe to mainstream, the veteran outfit deliver a spoof that will brighten any hard-working Londoner’s evening. With a cast of three, this is theatre that never pretends to be anything else, revelling in the absurdity of every artifice…. As if to be absolutely clear that nothing should be taken seriously, Holmes is played with the most ridiculous of Spanish accents by Basque actor Javier Marzan…. There’s little here that more intrepid theatregoers won’t have seen before on the Fringe. The spectacular set-pieces of The 39 Steps… have upped the ante for this sort of Do-It-Yourself spoof. But the laughs are here in force…. Indubitably a good night out.”

    - by Terri Paddock