"Marry him, murder him, do anything you like with him!" It was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself who wrote that to an impresario about to stage a play based on the character of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle's been taken at his word many times since 1899, and Carl Miller is the latest in the long procession of writers hoping to persuade us that their fiction can be truly taken as fact, in Sherlock Holmes and the Athenaeum Ghoul.
But however hard a novelist or playwright tries for authenticity, the past can only be viewed through the lens of the present. Distortion is inevitable. We see the use of drugs, the rules of society - especially relationships between men and boys, men and men, men and girls, men and women - in a different light to that of our late Victorian ancestors. It can seem that nowadays there always has to be a subtext.
Strong fictional characters can withstand actors, however in this case the willing suspension of disbelief, which has to be the crux of a theatrical experience, is nearly impossible.
You can't blame the cast, though Jonathan Keeble is too young-looking to convince as so world-weary a misanthrope of this Holmes. Keith Drinkel as Harry Bell, the actor-manager in pursuit of a knighthood, and Angela McGowan as the former leading lady, balance Luke Shaw's down-to-basics Doctor Watson. There's also an almost three-dimensional sketch of Billy by Jack Blumenau, precocious and pitiable at the same time.
Nor can you blame the designers, for Kit Surrey (set) and John Bramley (lighting and special effects) whisk us in and out of Baker Street, on stage and back stage, up to Hampstead Heath and down the Strand with admirable precision.
Sherlock Holmes and the Athenaeum Ghoul plays with - and on - theatricality. Not just a play within a play - though that creates its own joke in a Georgian theatre about to experience a 190-year retrospective makeover. The problem lies in the writers giving characters skewed frames of reference. Although enjoyable, it just doesn’t ring true.
- Anne Morley-Priestman (reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds)