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A Study in Scarlet

Arthur Conan Doyle, adapted for the stage by Lila Whelan and Greg Freeman
Tacit Theatre presented by Leo Steele
Southwark Playhouse

A Study in Scarlet

Conan Doyle’s original actually tells two tales. First there is that told by Dr John Watson of his meeting with self-styled Independent Sherlock Holmes and their investigation of the murder of the man whose body was found at 3 Lauriston Gardens Camberwell and another related killing that followed. Secondly there is the back-story that motivated the murders.

This adaptation plays both tales in tandem. It begins in 1847 in the arid wastes of Utah when a man and a five-year old child, already near death and the only survivors of a band of frontier immigrants trekking westwards, encounter a party of Mormons looking for a place to build their new Zion. The Mormons refuse to aid them unless they promise to convert to their religion and accept its jurisdiction.

The play then switches forward to Watson’s arrival at Holmes’s lodgings and we begin that familiar but fascinating succession of encounters with Holmes’s deductions and eagerly await hearing just how he has come to them.

On the one hand, a tale of rigid sectarianism and exploitation on the other a typical Holmesian mystery—in fact it was the first one, in which Holmes describes “the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life” declaring that “our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it”.

With innumerable stage, film and television adaptation,s the Conan Doyle formula seems a perennial winner and here there is the added theatrical pleasure of seeing Tacit’s team of actors doubling as characters in both stories, often exiting one moment and re-entering the next in very different guise.

Philip Benjamin is a laid-back, violin-playing Holmes not showing much sign of his personal demons and Edward Cartwright an urbane Dr Watson, often sharing his thoughts with the audience and they play off each other very well. They are in opposition in the American story as the leader of the Mormon group (Benjamin) and the man forced to join them (Cartwright).

As the police detectives, Rhys King is suitably lacklustre as Scotland Yard’s Tobias Gregson with Paul Lincoln as his sidekick Lestrade more animated but already looking foolish beside the colourfully costumed Holmes in a so-sober suit too big for him. They get to play the evil Enoch Drebber (King) and the honest but equally sectarian Joseph Stangerson, who turn up on both sides of the Atlantic.

Eliot Harper has only a brief comic moment as Constable John Rance but he also plays the American tale’s hero: cattle ranger Jefferson Hope, the lover and would-be rescuer of the maturing Lucy, the child found dying in the desert, who is being forced to become either the sixth wife of Drebber or the third wife of Stangerson. He and Stephanie Prior’s Lucy make the kind of romantic couple who should end happily against a typical western sunset, but that is denied them.

The whole is played out in a setting by Katherine Heath that is both Holmes’s lodgings and all other locations with a wallpapered wall, partly peeling, lots of Victorian nicknackery and a framework overhead that provides places for racks of chemicals and other Holmesian apparatus. The atmosphere however is largely provided by Leo Steele’s lighting, a sound score of ticking clocks, strange whistlings and clicking desert insects by Ella Wahlström and music by Annabelle Browne that also helps shape the staging. (Almost all this company, not just the Holmes, are instrumentalists as well as actors.)

Nicholas Thompson’s cleverly conceived, entertaining production keeps both stories going without loss of energy, always keeping the audience guessing until Holmes explains his reasoning and the mystery unravels. In presenting so much so compactly, much detail from the original has been lost but unless you are a real Holmesian specialist you aren’t going to miss it. This has both Holmesian spirit and theatrical panache.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton