Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, adapted by Steven Canny and John Nicholson
Octagon Theatre Bolton
July 1 2021-August 7 2021; 2hr 20min
When theatrical troupe Peepolykus adapted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous novel for the stage in 2007, it was in the hope that the well-known story would attract a larger audience to their unique brand of comedy.
It did more than that. The show broke box office records, enjoyed a hit West End transfer, toured the country and spawned multiple absurdist takes on classic British tales.
Fitting then, that nearly a decade and a half later, the same adaptation is the first main-house production at the Octagon. Once again able to inspire people back into a theatre and spark laughter and joy.
The socially-distant experience may be unnerving, but the audience is soon transported to 1880s Dartmoor, thanks to the spookily-comic Danse Macabre and liberal use of the compulsory smoke machine.
The story is familiar and fairly faithful, after an enjoyable tearing down of the fourth wall. Famed detective Sherlock Holmes sends hapless Dr Watson in search of clues to solve the case of the horrible hound and save the life of Sir Henry Baskerville. Chaos, though, ensues.
Against a stunning cinemascope backdrop, the cast of three take on multiple roles and generate plenty of laughs as they manhandle props and costumes with satisfyingly farcical results.
There are moments of brilliant physical comedy and perfect comic timing. Watson and Baskerville’s walk together on the moors and a bizarre sauna scene in particular. However, a madcap recap of the first half at the beginning of Act Two reminds us what we are missing. I was consistently left wanting Lotte Wakeham’s direction to pick up the pace and give us something even more frenetic, even more over the top.
Octagon Youth Theatre alumnus Reuben Johnson plays Holmes and a large handful of the other protagonists, including creepy Stapleton, Spanish seductress Cecile and both the butler and his wife – who are hilariously and purposefully indistinguishable. Johnson seems to have much more fun, and more to do, with the caricature ensemble parts than with our detective hero. Holmes seems a little lost here, neither sufficiently aloof and unemotional nor madcap and wacky.
Simon Kane has the smallest number of roles to play, but among them is the most important. As Watson, Kane is utterly believable as the bumbling and clueless sidekick, both everyman for the audience and the story’s emotional heart. Plus, he is very funny.
But Polly Lister gives the standout performance(s) as the Baskervilles, Dr Mortimer, a classic London cabby and two or three subtly different, yokels. It’s a masterclass in comic variation and clowning and really makes the show.
Anyone who has seen any theatrical physical comedy in the past decade or so will recognise some of the scenes. A cast bouncing along on stage mimicking the movement of a train or cab has become a stereotypical mainstay of the genre. But the truth is, by the time the show reaches its conclusion and fabulous curtain call, it really doesn’t matter.
The adaptation does what it was always intended to: it brings in an audience, transports them to a different world and time, and gives them that most precious and special of theatrical gifts, laughter.
Information and tickets here