The Fired Up Theatre Company are starting to define the word versatile. From the rock opera’s of The Wall and Quadrophenia, and the thriller-scape of The Fell Walker, they now tackle this traditional murder mystery classic. Much played in numerous film and television adaptations, it was also produced for the stage by the Peepolykus Theatre Company at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2007.
The Hound of the Baskervilles is the third of the crime novels written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle featuring the detective Sherlock Holmes and is often voted the best by aficionados of Doyle. Originally serialised in The Strand Magazine from August 1901 to April 1902, it is set largely on Dartmoor in Devon in England’s West Country and tells the story of an attempted murder inspired by the legend of a fearsome, diabolical hound of supernatural origin. Sherlock Holmes and his companion Dr. Watson investigate the case.
Holmes and Watson are such established figures in popular literary culture that many productions have veered towards pastiche. This production is billed :“a tragi-comedy, farce thriller, melodramatic theatre performance”, so there was quite a lot to fit in!
The production opens to a bare stage, bar a chair, a back projection screen, and mists seemingly rolling in from the dark moors around. A company of thirteen ensured the minimalist stage was always busy, the big screen providing still and live action backdrops. The latter was particularly well utilised for live action footage of the cast at a railway station and on a train, courtesy of Chase Water Heritage railway. Original music by Helen Thorne and incidental music by Jimmy Dewhirst was particularly atmospheric and effective.
Mal Dewhirst’s script was authentic and easy on the ear, humorous without veering into pastiche. His running gag of a complex situation being a “two pipe problem” consistently drew laughs. Co-director Simon Quinn also took on the part of Sherlock Holmes in an engaging portrayal, part wacky Dr Who, part North Bank Boot Boy. John Westoby was a credible foil as Dr Watson, deferential, a poor shot, and always second best to Sherlock’s inimitable powers of deduction.
Supporting were a strong cast. I particularly enjoyed Michael Lieber’s Dr Mortimer, his stage wife, Frida Andersson, got to wear the best dress, and looked fabulous, whilst convincingly attempting to invoke the spirits of the dead in the seance scene. Anthony Webster as Barrymore, sporting a mane of hair that will have Andie MacDowell green with envy, and should have L’Oreal racing to swap models, was excellent, giving a restrained, nuanced performance, as did Tamsyn Ashton as his wife, evoking the “downstairs” of Downton Abbey.
Minor parts can have big impacts and Will Green set a confident tone at the start as the Coroner, whilst the teasingly androgynous Mrs Frankland was played with zest and good humour by Hannah Smith.
The temptation on stage adaptations is to grossly simplify the plot, but with thirteen actors at his disposal, Mal Dewhirst’s writing does not compromise, and still tells the tale effectively within the one hour fifty minute performed running time.