Touring (seen at Greenwich Theatre, London SE10) / Duchess Theatre, London WC2
Latter production opened 17
April, 2007
*** / ***

To be sure, Sherlock Holmes is the world's most famous fictional detective and this his most famous case, but nevertheless it seems a mite bizarre for the entire population of the Baskerville kennels to have descended on London at once.

My first trip was to see an almost straight adaptation (by Clive Francis), which has been touring the country for some time and visits London for a week towards the end of its itinerary. The central duo are played by recognisable "names", Peter Egan as Holmes and Philip Franks as Watson, with three other actors filling all the supporting roles. Director Robin Herford was also at the original helm of The Woman In Black, which after 18 years is now the longest-running non-musical in the West End after The Mousetrap. His Holmes production is very much in the same style: a small cast, a relatively simple staging albeit with some visual effects, and judicious doses of gentle humour leavening a fundamental fidelity to the atmosphere of the original story.

Egan has an almost epicurean look about him as Holmes: not the kind of man one would generally imagine shooting up a seven per cent solution of cocaine. The addition of a moustache to the now greying, thickening Franks turns his Watson into a clubbable middle-aged gent. He is nothing like such a duffer as Nigel Bruce's Watson (the foil to Basil Rathbone's near-definitive cinematic Holmes), but Franks pitches his moments of puzzlement and his flawed deductions expertly. In contrast, there is a feeling of smirking around some of Egan-as-Holmes's gags, enough to raise suspicions about the bona fides of the performance. Timothy Bird's set design places nothing on stage but a few large sculpted piles of books and papers, which are dragged around to serve as everything from the furniture in 221b Baker Street to a horse-cart. Most of the visuals are projected on to a gauze across the stage, with some of the action taking place behind it. Again, this is the same theatrical aesthetic that underpins The Woman In Black, but it feels less successful here, possibly through familiarity.

I wondered, indeed, whether this Hound was being groomed to take over from that show at the Fortune Theatre, but it has been beaten into the West End by the comedy/clowning company Peepolykus (pronounced "people like us"), whose production went down a storm in Leeds earlier this year. They go further still in the economy stakes, performing the entire tale with a cast of three: a Holmes, a Watson and a Sir Henry Baskerville, "with other parts played by members of the cast". Holmes is played by Basque performer Javier Marzan, a decision which is mined for humour: after the interval, in response to alleged complaints about the "dago's" thick accent, the trio reprise the first half at breakneck speed.

I have long felt that I should be slightly more fond of Peepolykus than I am. In their earlier years, their own obvious delight in their stage confections – corpsing one another time and again – suggested to me that they sometimes lost sight of the audience as being the key party in a show's reception. Several years down the line, the corpsing seems no more than simple enjoyment, shared with us rather than excluding us. However, despite their inventiveness and dedication, they still seem somehow less crisp performers than they ought to be. This is highlighted by new recruit Jason Thorpe's delicious physical skills: he gets hilariously engrossed in a tango-cum-ballet pas de deux with Marzan (who is in a dress at the time), demonstrating the kind of physical intensity that should always be present if the (many, enjoyable) gags are to be given the high definition they require for maximum payoff.

What surprised me was the amount the two productions had in common, from little touches such as the gag of miming a juddery cart-ride to the simple fact that, despite all its parody and wackiness, the Peepolykus adaptation covers the story in every bit as much detail as Francis's version. Whatever your preferred tone, it seems there will continue for a while yet to be curious incidents of the dog in the night-time, six nights a week plus two matinées.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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