The Hound of the Baskervilles
Adaptation: Steven Canny, John Nicholson
Director: Richard Cotter
May 27 – June 17, 2023
For an enjoyable evening at the theatre the Genesian’s production of Steven Canny and John Nicholson’s hilarious re-invention of the celebrity detective Sherlock Holmes’s well-known case The Hound of the Baskervilles is a must-see. While retaining the basic plot and characters of the original but reducing the whole to chaotic absurdity by having all characters played by three actors, whodunit in-jokes and a lively delivery of zany dialogue, the play is daft and delightful.
The opening scene firmly establishes the play’s “what-ever-next?” context for the audience. After a dose of howling, spooky music and night fog they witness the melodramatic death – apparently from fright – of Sir Charles Baskerville (Oliver Harcourt-Ham) but are suddenly thrust back into reality for a “health warning” from the actors. The maybe puzzled audience is given the opportunity to leave the theatre should they suffer from “heart disease, nervous disorder or low self-esteem” and then flung back into the play. There follows an absurd re-enactment complete with a ghastly dying grimace by Dr Watson (Kate Easlea) as it is described by Sir Charles’s good friend, James Mortimer (Harcourt-Ham).
Mortimer is convinced Sir Charles didn’t die of a heart attack but was frightened to death by a demonic hound which, according to legend, has killed many of the heirs to the Baskerville title. Concerned the new heir will meet a similar fate, Mortimer appeals to the unconventional detective who agrees to speak with Sir Henry. Having already been introduced to the totally self-absorbed Holmes, elegantly played by Alyona Popova, it is not surprising to find Holmes walking in on Sir Henry (Harcourt-Ham) while having a steam bath. It is surprising, however, that when Holmes learns Sir Henry is being shadowed, to find that the bath so easily converts to a train transporting Sir Henry and Watson to the country, and Popova converting first to a train driver and secondly and arbitrarily into a scary Halloween monster.
The eager and amiable Watson does most of the detecting as Popova is far too busy playing a bewildering array of characters inhabiting the country estate. She is dour as the wife of the devious butler, Barrymore, as Barrymore with glued-on food laden trays, charming as secretive Miss Stapleton with whom Sir Henry falls in love (and with whom he indulges in a Spanish inspired dreamy dance sequence) and creepy as her crippled brother Stapleton, complete with eye patch. In between she is Holmes, disguised as a hermit (or maybe a “turnip”).
The greatest challenge to Popova, and to Harcourt-Ham who also has several role changes, occurs after interval. Holmes has received a tweet critical of his performance and he makes the decision that they will redo a précised version of the first act before proceeding with the play – surely a good joke at the expense of TV serials that indulge in recapitulation. There follows a superfast and hilarious summation of the narrative which while very demanding of all three actors – their timing is excellent – delights the audience with its utter ridiculousness.
The production might well be entitled The Case of the Flying Fireplace as this item of furniture is in fairly constant motion depending on whether the setting is interior or exterior. Like the bath-train-bed, and window/picture frame, the props become an important element in this comedy of quick changes contributing to the general atmosphere of anarchic ingenuity.
There is much to enjoy in this production. The director, Richard Cotter, has fully entered into the spirit of a script that has an affectionate regard for the great detective and his creator Conan Doyle but, at the same time, exhibits a lively sense of the ridiculous. The casting is exceptionally strong, and all three actors deliciously appropriate to their difficult roles … and Popova insanely endearing as the great man.