The year is 1900 and at 221B Baker Street, London, Doctor John Watson is at a loss how to lift his good friend and collaborator Sherlock Holmes out of his funk. Months have passed since the resolution of their last investigation – the Case of the Arsenic Arts and Crafts Movements – and Holmes has resorted to cocaine, animal cruelty and testing an experimental form of LSD on their landlady, Mrs Hudson, to alleviate his crippling boredom.
Even worse for Watson the lack of new cases to contribute to the Stand Magazine has left Watson without the funds for his half of this month’s rent. Desperate times call for desperate measures and so the good Doctor takes matters into his own hands.
It’s a bit awkward reviewing this play as I saw it last August as part of the Edinburgh Fringe.
You may not of have heard of the Edinburgh Fringe, a minor arts festival up in Lothian, Scotland. It’s no Swindon Fringe, but if you’re ever up there while it’s on then I think you should probably help support it.
Anyway, I saw it during its Edinburgh run (by mistake, I meant to watch another Sherlock Holmes play, but never mind that now) and… Well, I didn’t dislike it, but I had quite a few reservations. And I agreed to review this iteration at the Swindon Fringe not realising it was the same play. Which is tricky as it made going in with an open mind nigh on impossible.
So, forgive me but there’s inevitably going to be an element of comparison in this review.
That said, I enjoyed it much more this time round. Part of the problem I had last time was that the show felt a little unfinished. The pace – and the script moves at a giddy pace – was a bit off, there were occasional flashes of uncertainty in the performances and the costuming, set-dressing and props seemed a bit hit-and-miss.
Over six months have passed since I last saw it and most of these issues have been ironed out. The show and performances were far more slick and confident with some nice moments of slick comic business between the three actors. The setting and dressing of the stage seemed more complete and the play seemed more cohesive as a result.
One thing baffled me, though: where was the golf club? A golf club plays a major part in the narrative. Holmes is shown swinging one on the poster for the show and I’m sure as I can be that a real golf club was used in the 2016 Edinburgh performance I saw. In this iteration the golf club was mimed, this absence being explained by a muttered aside about budget cuts. I think it might have stood out anyway if I hadn’t seen the show before, all other props being physically realised, but knowing that there had been a club previously it was mystifying. Had it got lost in transit? Had there been a near fatal cranial connection during rehearsals?
I suppose I’ll never know now. Answers on a postcard, please.
Otherwise this was a much better realisation of a fiendishly byzantine Holmesian parody:
I thought Ellis J Wells did a stand-out job keeping the pace bouncing along and I relished his panicked reaction as his Doctor Watson’s cunning plan unravels and spins out of control around him. Joshua Phillips, playing several characters including Mrs Hudson and ‘The Napoleon of Crime’ gives a number of intensely sketched comic cameos and Jasmine Atkins-Smart gave a suitably impish, pompous and self-satisfied as Sherlock Holmes.
As an aside the whole cast did very well to maintain energy for 50 minutes of animated action in the Town Hall Theatre, which was as hot and airless as a sweatbox, especially Atkins-Smart who spent most of the show striding the stage in suit, Deerstalker and Inverness cape.
The main issues in the play are in the last act. It’s too long, too static and a glut of exposition and explanation kills the previously giddy tempo. The actors do what they can with it but they play only really lurches back into life as it finally staggers to its climax.
But in the final analysis I’ve made a happy return to the play. It’s generally a fitter, smarter and sharper show than the one I remember from up in Auld Reekie. Now if only they could find that golf club.