Holmes for the Holidays, aka The Games Afoot, is written by Ken Ludwig, an American anglophile whose education takes in both Harvard , and Trinity College Cambridge. Ludwig likes English literature. He has written about Shakespeare, Gilbert and Sullivan, Dickens, and Robert Louis Stevenson and adapted Farquar’s Beaux Stratagem. Unsurprisingly he is also a devotee of Sherlock Holmes.
There are two excellent directors of comedy working in North Birmingham and its surrounds, Barrie Aitchison and Christopher Waters. It is the latter who has taken on the task of realising this show, along with producer Louise Farmer. Ludwig is seldom performed on these shores, whilst being widely played Stateside, winning numerous accolades, prizes and awards in the process. Sherlock Holmes is a perennial audience favourite in England so tackling a rarely performed play by a lesser known playwright was not quite the risk that it could have been.
A six hander, the curtain rises to offer that Shakespearean favourite device, a play within a play, ending with a shocking denouement. Thereafter, the company retreats, out of costume, to Holmes’ country mansion for the main event. We are presented with an American author, writing about an English literary hero, who perform on stage in English accents, then at home in American accents as the action is set in America, a curiosity that subsides as the play progresses.
Waters has assembled an excellent character driven cast. Robert Meehan takes the part of William Gillette, renowned for his Holmes parts, and whose mannerisms he happily mimics. Wisely he allows the checked cloak, deerstalker and pipe to do a lot of the work, while his fellow cast members ham things up uproariously. Sam Evans plays Felix Gisel playing Moriarty. Sam is fabulous. A big man, he physically imposes himself on stage and dominates the scenes he is in, the perfect visceral foil to Meehan’s more cerebral Gillette. Lorraine Samantha Allen similarly is well cast as Madge, Felix’s wife and enjoys her featured moment memorably. Indeed a feature of this play is that each character is effectively given their “solo”, a scene in which to shine. No-one fluffs their opportunity.
Julie Lomas plays Williams’ mother in a part more complex than at first appears, reflective, timid, murderous and batty by different plot turns. The young couple are played by Rod Bissett as Simon Bright, funny, engaging and self -effacing, but quick witted when he needs to be. His widowed new wife is consummately performed by Leanne Brown who offers an assured understated performance carrying a beautiful elegant gown with some style.
The investigating officer is Suzy Donnelly who makes the most of her latter second act appearance, whilst leaving the stage clear for Gillette to make his elementary deductions.
But the star of the show is Liz Webster as theatre critic Daria Chase. No barb is too sharp, no put down too hurtful, no aside too cutting for her. Even before she has spoken, an upturned lip, a dismissive eyebrow, a glowering look portends what is to come in a fine character performance. Obviously the homicide of a theatre critic is to be regretted, as is her revelation that sleeping with the critic is the key to good reviews, but her ebullient first act performance, and her stiff second act performance, really is a treat too good to miss.
Waters squeezes the most out of the production with an impressive set featuring revolving rooms, more weapons on the wall than any psychopath could realistically dream of, and numerous sound cues which are utilised faultlessly- well done Stan Vigurs and Colin Mears. The physical comedy is very well handled both by Waters’ direction, and Webster, and Evans’ acting execution. They deliver a five star performance.
My four stars overall is not for the production, but the play itself. Well written, and neatly plotted though it is, to these eyes and ears some of the literary jokes are a little ham-fisted for my tastes, an American trying to get Englishness – but not quite making it.
Nonetheless this is a funny, entertaining and rewarding production that drew uniformly warm vox pops from the departing full house on Wednesday night- and deservedly so. “Holmes for the Holiday” runs till Saturday 21st January. https://grangeplayers.co.uk/