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The Hound of the Baskervilles

By • West End
WOS Rating:
The title is always the selling point. Well, it has to be in the West End when you have no actors to speak of, or sell tickets on. This is the latest attempt – The 39 Steps might be flagged up as the best current example – 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 performed by the Peepolykus (ie, “People Like Us”) troupe, three competent actors - one of whom, Javier Marzan, plays Sherlock Holmes in a thick Spanish accent possibly because he is Spanish - present a reasonably inventive comedy cabaret which extracted a laugh, or at least a yelp, from me on approximately three occasions.

One of those came when the swirling fog of Dartmoor is exchanged for the rising steam of a sauna, where Holmes and Watson track down Sir Henry Baskerville, heir to the estate whose mysterious and terrifying hell hound has frightened an ancestor to death, and where horses disappear in the Grimpen mire and an escaped convict lurks in the rocky landscape.

Even if The Hound of the Baskervilles is Arthur Conan Doyle’s best loved and most filmed story, the original remains a strangely unsatisfactory mixture of hectic incident and heightened tension followed by a detailed but perfunctory unravelling of the plot when Holmes – absent for most of the story’s duration – reveals himself as a crafty participant in the action, unknown to stuffy old Watson who has been doing all the donkey work.

Unsurprisingly, Peepolykus seize on the sense of injured bafflement that always surrounds Watson and play up the melodrama with unseemly relish. My second yelp of the evening followed the speeded up summary of the show’s first half at the start of the second, although you do wonder why they didn’t just do that quicker version to start with. The plot soon becomes impossible to follow, even though “Stapleton” is clearly fingered as a bad sort, sporting a crutch and a black eye patch, and Henry enjoys a tango moment with a woman in a cape who does not smoke a Meerschaum – or does she?

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 (alright, third yelp of the night). The opening effect of the dread dog bursting through a paper moon is the best of the night, though I really enjoyed the tiny one-dimensional billiard table and the slow descending hearth that symbolises the dark, dank misery of Baskerville Hall.

John Nicholson and Jason Thorpe - one with a permanently surprised expression and sticky-up hair, the other solid and saturnine - are Spanish Sherlock’s partners in solving crime, and their work is well orchestrated by director Orla O'Loughlin. I just wish I found it all funnier (three yelps is not enough) and not quite so toothless and so yesterday’s fringe.

- Michael Coveney


NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from January 2007 and this production's earlier run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds.

Adaptations of classic novels nowadays come in many forms: the filleting of plots to make a conventional drama that produced plays like The Only Way and The Heiress is no longer the routine method. At two extremes lie the cast-as-narrators approach, taking the audience back to the original text, and the radical deconstruction and absurdist comedy to be found in Peepolykus’ version of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Though the plot as it emerges in Steven Canny’s adaptation sticks surprisingly close to the original, it helps if the audience knows the Conan Doyle story. There are, in fact, at least two different plots developing simultaneously: Sherlock Holmes’ investigation of a mysterious death and a monstrous hound on Dartmoor, and the struggle of three actors to stage that story against all the odds.

The actors operate on several different levels. Javier Marzan plays Holmes with a fine swagger and an ever finer pipe; he also plays a company member taking so many parts that at one time he has to beat himself up; finally he plays Javier Marzan himself, the proud Spaniard whose response to a complaint by 130 of the audience that they can’t understand him is to insist on a high-speed re-run of Act 1. Similarly, the fears of Jason Thorpe, in terror for his life, work in parallel to the fears of Sir Henry Baskerville – who is played with tremulous determination by Thorpe.

Essentially The Hound of the Baskervilles is great fun, with John Nicholson’s earnestly inane Dr. Watson (at great pains to point out that he’s in charge) taking out his old service revolver in manic attempts to shoot half the livestock of Dartmoor and characters disappearing regularly into the oozy slime of the Great Grimpen Mire.

Aside from a spell in Act 1 when a loss of momentum threatens, the production unites constantly inventive physical and verbal comedy with a cheeky respect for the original. The great strength of Orla O'Loughlin’s direction is to make everything seem improvised and, in fact, some things are – this is not a production for audience members to arrive late!

However, the timing of the effects of Jackie Shemesh’s atmospheric lighting and Mic Pool’s dramatic sound plot is nothing if not precise. Ti Green’s designs, with a broadly expressionistic moorland backcloth, instant fly-ins of the domestic scenes and colourful, swiftly changeable costumes, do much for the pace and fluidity of the production.

- Ron Simpson (reviewed at West Yorkshire Playhouse)


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