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Sherlock Holmes: The Hound of the Baskervilles

Richard Hurford, based on the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
York Theatre Royal
York Theatre Royal

Rachel Dawson as Beryl Stapleton, Ed Thorpe as Stapleton, Elexi Walker as Dr Watson, Joanna Holden as Mrs Hudson Credit: Anthony Robling
David Leonard as Sherlock Holmes, Elexi Walker as Dr Watson Credit: Anthony Robling
Rob Castell as Sir Henry Baskerville, Rachel Dawson as Beryl Stapleton Credit: Anthony Robling

After the success of The Wind in the Willows and The Railway Children, the summer show at York Theatre Royal is fast becoming an eagerly anticipated event to rival the enduringly popular pantomime. This year, director Damian Cruden has chosen to tackle more adult fare by staging Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous Sherlock Holmes mystery: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902).

According to local legend, the Baskerville family are haunted by a monstrous, gigantic hound, whose appearance announces impending death. After the demise of Sir Charles Baskerville on his Dartmoor estate, Sherlock Holmes (David Leonard) and his loyal sidekick Dr Watson (Elexi Walker) make it their mission to prevent the new heir Sir Henry Baskerville (Rob Castell) from meeting a similarly grisly end.

Rather than offering a straightforward adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, the central conceit of this production is that a Victorian theatre company has chosen to act out Conan Doyle’s classic novella in the style of a music hall performance. So, in addition to a murder mystery, the audience are also treated to a spectacle of song, dance, slapstick and shadow puppetry.

There is much to enjoy in the show, not least the performances of the six actor-musicians. David Leonard, last seen in York as King Rat in Dick Whittington (and His Meerkat), expertly conveys the intellectual bravado of the famous sleuth. In a bold piece of casting, Elexi Walker dons both a fake moustache and a dress to play the ever-reliable Dr Watson. With Sherlock removed for a significant part of the action, Walker’s Watson becomes the audience’s representative onstage, and she does a lot of the heavy-lifting in terms of plot exposition without allowing herself to be overshadowed by some of the more eccentric characters.

Rob Castell imbues Sir Henry Baskerville with a buffoonish charm, not least in his introductory song and an impromptu ballet sequence. Joanna Holden excels in a variety of small comic roles including Sherlock’s unflappable housekeeper Mrs Hudson, the sinister Mrs Barrymore and—to quote the programme—"assorted urchins and mangled peasants". Rachel Dawson and Ed Thorpe are equally fine, skilfully playing a variety of characters when not being called upon to play the cello or accordion.

Mark Walters’s fluid set design means the stage can be transformed into a variety of locations with speed and economy, allowing the story to rattle along at full throttle. Rob Castell provides a series of catchy music hall numbers designed to further the plot whilst reminding the audience that they are watching a Victorian theatrical extravaganza.

Although the company do their utmost to make the convolutions of Conan Doyle’s plot understandable, I believe that an individual unfamiliar with the original text or its numerous adaptations might struggle to follow the narrative’s numerous twists and turns. Also, bearing in mind that this show is aimed at a family audience, much more could have been made of the spectral beast that haunts the Baskervilles. Too often, the hound seems like a peripheral figure.

Despite these minor misgivings, Sherlock Holmes: The Hound of the Baskervilles is an enjoyable family show, punctuated with inspired comic moments, that will provide York audiences with some much-needed silliness before Cinderella opens in December.

Reviewer: James Ballands