The Secret of Sherlock Holmes

Jeremy Paul
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring

Production photo

Sherlock Holmes is a character which is just begging to be sent up, and over the years there have been many spoof performances of his famous cases. His pedantic overbearing manner, and his ability to deduce from a scrap of dust and a broken fingernail that a man had murdered his brother’s wife’s second cousin three years ago in Patagonia (you get the idea) lend themselves to comedy. Three years ago a very successful and entertainingly comical version of The Hound of the Baskervilles toured nationally, and here Peter Egan and Philip Franks reprise their roles of Holmes and his close companion Dr. Watson - this time with no supporting cast.

At the beginning it seems like another very clever and funny parody but, while there is still plenty of fun and laughter, this has much darker undertones and Holmes is fighting inner demons. His arch enemy Professor Moriarty may be within himself - or is he?

Director Robin Herford, of the record-breaking Woman in Black fame, knows a thing or two about creating an atmosphere of mystery, suspense and trepidation and uses his expertise to the full. This time there is no video footage constantly changing the venues, but Simon Higlett has, as usual, designed an amazingly ingenious set - the interior and exterior of 19th Century 221b Baker Street with staircases leading to a landing where an enormous window overlooks the cobbled street below, and smoke billows and swirls from the chimney beginning to produce the effect of a ghostly London fog, the cosy, fusty bachelor pad, dimly lit and cluttered, with shadows harbouring ghosts - real or imagined. Other essential ingredients in this engrossing production are Matthew Bugg’s eerily atmospheric music and Matthew Eagland’s swiftly changing lighting designs, perfectly complementing the action.

We may well be aware of Holmes’ notorious cocaine habit, but we’ve never actually seen him ‘shooting up’ so it comes as quite a shock when he produces the hypodermic and is the first intimation that this isn’t purely a comedy.

The pace is fast, the dialogue extensive, but with almost Pinter-style pauses which keep the audience hanging on every word, and performances are flawless. Egan makes no attempt to make Holmes likeable, but plays him as the self-obsessed, selfish character he appeared to be, so concentrating on the business of ‘observation and deduction‘ that there is no room for anything else. “The brain is a tiny attic room” and he is determined to keep it clear of anything to distract.

Franks‘ Watson, on the other hand is much more human and likeable, the doctor in him worrying about Holmes‘ use of drugs - two very diverse characters and quite hilarious when they each recite a long list of the other’s shortcomings.

The final enigmatic exchange between the two - “My disease is of the brain” and “The man you killed has not left you - your enemy and friend are one” - leave us wondering how their relationship will develop, but there’s no question that they desperately need each other.

Worth paying good money to experience this show? --- a very emphatic “Yes” - a real gem!

Touring to York, Edinburgh, Malvern, Southend and Cambridge.

Allison Vale reviewed this production in Bath

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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