Ha Ha Holmes! The Beast of the Blistervilles
Jamie Wilson Productions
Warehouse Theatre, Croydon, and touring
"Please remember to hang your brains up with your coats when you come in," exhorts writer/director Ben Langley in the programme. My coat went in with me which might explain why I didn't chortle my way through this show quite as enthusiastically as last year's Ha Ha Hitler!
Despite deerstalker, pipe and scratchy fiddling, neither as writer nor performer does Langley either parody or ridicule the famous drug-addicted detective. The friendly, relaxed personality who greets and bandies comments with the audience as they come in continues too blandly when putting on Holmes's cape coat. As director he has not given himself sufficient prominence.
This Holmes gets rather swamped by the vitality of his support - but excellent support it is. Andrew Fettes, who plays Dr Watson, is an actor with extra chromosomes for hilarity and Fenton Gray, who plays everything else can switch from hairy Neanderthal to lovelorn maiden at the drop of a wig and with equal conviction. He displays a versatility to compare with Sherlock's known skill with disguises - which surprisingly Langley doesn't use.
In fact these three are very much a team, not least in the efficient manipulation of designer Fettes's cleverly effective set of boxes and baggage as it changes from Holmes's rooms in Baker Street to stage-coach, or the hearth in Blisterville Hall to dangerous Grimpen Mire (that one with a little long-distance audience assistance).
This is what you might call a participatory production. At one point four audience members find themselves become additional what you might literally call self-supporting cast in an inspired piece of business. At another, four others are recruited to join the stagecoach passengers, kitted out with a cowboy hat, a chieftain's feathered headdress, a biker's cap and a construction worker's hat, all needed for a for a slow build up to a single gag, the suggestion that Holmes and Watson spend the night where they do - at a certain well-known Hostel.
If you fancy a show where, panto style, you have cues to shout and even a song sheet, there is plenty in Ha Ha Holmes to enjoy. By the second act even someone as curmudgeonly as I am found my laughter was coming more freely, and I saw it after only two previews when perhaps it was not fully played in.
At Croydon Warehouse until 3rd April then Dunstable Grove Theatre 4th April; Lichfield Garrick 5th-9th April. The Maltings Arts Theatre, St Albans 5th-9th April; The Lights, Andover 12th April; Kings Theatre, Southsea 13th April; Camberley Theatre 14th April; Gala Theatre, Durham 15th April; Theatre Royal, Margate 16th April; Pomegranate Theatre, Chesterfield 18th April; Cleckheaton Town Hall 19th April; Palace Theatre, Newark 20th April; Octagon Theatre, Yeovil 21st April; Venue Cymru, Llandudno 22nd April; Solihull Arts Complex 23rd April; Opera House, Buxton 24th April; Pavilion, Worthing 26th April 2011
Reviewer: Howard Loxton