SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE MAGIC OF THEATRE
A review of Woy Woy Little Theatre’s August Production:
Jeffrey Hatcher’s Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Suicide Club
In 1887, when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first published a story featuring a detective called Sherlock Holmes he could hardly have anticipated the phenomenal success of his character. Although the Scottish author wrote many other short stories, several critically acclaimed historical novels and even some stage works, it was the adventures of his brilliant but melancholic sleuth that the public craved, and the demand kept him writing more over the next forty years. The popularity transmitted to the stage and then to the silver screen where the character made his debut as early as 1900. In 2012 the Guinness Book of Records named Sherlock the most portrayed literary human character in film and TV noting that more than 70 actors had played the role in over 200 movies. For many years the most popular of these was Basil Rathbone’s portrayal in a series of movies made by Universal Studios in the forties. More recently the character has enjoyed a popular revival fuelled by the 2009 re-imagining starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. Meanwhile, the BBC is introducing Sherlock to a new generation of fans in the television series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman while, in the US, the series Elementary features Jonny Lee Miller and a female Dr. Watson played by Lucy Liu. 1 Now Sherlock Holmes has come to the Peninsula in a production that honours this rich history by presenting a new story in a form that remains true to Conan Doyle’s original adventures, but in a novel and unique manner designed to appeal to contemporary theatrical audiences.
Author Jeffrey Hatcher, an award winning playwright and screenwriter with many stage, screen and television credits, also wrote the screenplay for Mr. Holmes 2 – another movie incarnation, starring Ian McKellen, which is currently playing in cinemas around the Coast. Hatcher’s play, Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Suicide Club, has been described as a creative mash-up of Conan Doyle’s characters and a cycle of short stories by Robert Louis Stevenson; the mystery our intrepid hero is called upon to solve is loosely adapted from events in the first of these stories.3 The action takes place in 1914. It revolves around the mysterious Oyster Bar in London where a group of men of diverse nationalities regularly meet under assumed names with the shared purpose of casting off their Earthly woes. Complaining of a deep depression, Sherlock is initiated into the group and becomes a member of this macabre suicide club. When his faithful companion, Watson, becomes worried by his friend’s despondent behaviour he learns more about Sherlock’s habits than is good for him. In order to maintain anonymity and avert disaster, will Sherlock be forced to do the unthinkable?
The script is both intelligent and clever, full of suspenseful drama but also sparkling with a variety of humour from the dryly witty to darkly comic. The plot is faithful to Conan Doyle’s traditional formula and employs all his well-loved dramatic devices: intrigue, devious plots, unexpected twists, ploys within ploys, feints, double bluffs and sleight of hand – there’s even some actual prestidigitation! The genuinely puzzling mystery keeps you guessing and second guessing right up to the surprising reveal and shock ending.
Hatcher’s experience in TV and film lends a cinematic quality to his style, and Woy Woy Little Theatre have taken full advantage of this in their production to present an entertaining and compelling show. Jessica Alex (pictured above) has made a stunning debut in her first full directorial role at the Peninsula Theatre, with an innovative approach that acknowledges the many forms of media that have embraced the character and stories of Sherlock Holmes. From the opening moment the audience is immersed in the lives of the famous crime-fighting duo with a dramatic montage that effectively conveys an impression of their back story (a delightfully humorous nod toward the opening credits of a television series). The set itself is simple and suggestive, while a novel use of technical effects engages audience imagination to create the setting and atmosphere for a story that takes place in multiple locations. Sound and visuals are used to suspenseful and dramatic effect, and occasionally add their own layer of mystery; I was at a loss to guess how some were achieved, but I was assured it took hours of hard work, thought and care, and I don’t doubt it! The action is complemented throughout by thoughtfully chosen music that creates additional texture, meaning and atmosphere.
The role of Sherlock is inhabited by Beau Baker. Currently studying at the Screenwise School of Film and Television in Sydney, this is his debut performance in Central Coast theatre but, as a long-time fan of Holmes in all his incarnations, Beau is thrilled to take on the mantle. He has excellent stage presence and imbues the role with great personality. His trusty side-kick, Dr. Watson, is played by Tyrone McMaster, a familiar face on the Peninsula with a wealth of experience in plays and festivals around the Coast and in Sydney. Tyrone carries the tongue-in-cheek narrative with deadpan aplomb, and the two actors play perfectly off each other to recreate the fondly antagonistic partnership. Popular Coastie actor Andrew Thompson is becoming a regular on the Peninsula stage. Last seen in the role of Jim Hacker in WWLT’s acclaimed Yes Prime Minister, he is well chosen for the part of Sherlock’s brilliant and enigmatic brother, Mycroft. The rest of the ensemble comprises a mixture of new and familiar faces. To mention the stand out performances would be to give away too much about the play’s mysterious group of characters. Suffice to say, they are brought to life by some of the Coast’s best and best loved actors.
The production continues until Sunday August 30, but be sure to book quickly to avoid disappointment. It is a testament to Holmes’ continuing popularity and WWLT’s fine reputation that several performances are already fully booked and the remainder are selling out fast. To secure the few remaining seats, book online at http://www.woywoylt.com.au/ticketing or call 4344 4737. Whether you’re a Sherlock Holmes fan or just a lover of great theatre, this show is not to be missed.
* Biographical and background information mainly drawn from Wikipedia:
Images courtesy of WWLT publicity.
To listen to an interview with the stars and director of the show by Meredith Gilmore of Coast Arts radio visit https://soundcloud.com/meredithgilmore/sets/woy-woy-little-theatre-sherlock-holmes-production-august-2015