Sherlock Holmes is tougher going than your average Blackeyed production to follow, but Nick Lane once again produces a good adaptation faithful in many ways, and the changes work to the book’s strengths.
Few touring companies are in the enviable position of Blackeyed Theatre. A company that makes a name for itself in one thing is doing well, but Blackeyed had done this in several areas. John Ginman’s adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein were impressive enough, and their faithful but excellent performance of Teechers is another string to their bow, but to have topped this last year with Nick Lane’s adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was exceptional. The only down-side? This wasn’t quite the first performance. It was the first performance on a tour of this scale, and the addition of an extra character making it look like this was how the book was written all along was superbly executed, but the credit for risk-taking goes to a couple of earlier smaller but highly-acclaimed performances. Even so, a second play written and directed by Nick Lane was a no-brainer. This time, however, it really is a full premiere – no playing it safe and letting another group perform it first to see how it goes.
And so Blackeyed Theatre are spending the best part of a year touring Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four – not quite a Gothic horror tale that Blackeyed have built their reputation on, but still something stylistically similar. This time, Nick Lane has written a more faithful adaptation of the book, which one might think would always be the logical choice for a murder mystery, but you might be surprised. I have seen countless stage adaptations for crime stories, from Conan Doyle to Christie, that spoiled the story by mucking around with the plot from the book. And not just dumbing down – that I could at least understand – instead, I have seen major plot points such as the identity of the killer changed for utterly inexplicable reasons. Not that you should clump in Christie and Conan Doyle; that’s the other disservice done to Sherlock Holmes stories. It’s rare for these stories to work to a climax of bringing everyone together into a room to identify the villain, and you do Sherlock no favours by trying to pander to this expectation.
Nick Lane sticks to the story in the book, and I’m glad he does, but there is one drawback to doing it this way – and I’m honestly not sure what the best answer is. The Sign of Four is a bloody complicated plot. There are two back-stories for Holmes and Watson to be brought up to date with: Mary Morstan, whose estranged father mysteriously disappeared five years ago the night they were due to meet; and Thaddeus Sholto, whose own father knew Mary’s from their days in India and knew his fate. Central to both of these stories are some jewels from India, stolen so many times it’s almost like it’s a curse to be in possession of them. Such as Thaddeus’s brother Bartholomew, the last person in possession who has just met a sticky end with a poison dart. So Sherlock investigates the scene and makes his usual multitude of observations, concluding a normal-sized man and a small man escaped through the roof. And all of this is squeezed into the first 40 minutes of the story. This isn’t a problem in the original book form, because every time you read something that you’re not sure you picked up correctly, you can go back and re-read it – but that luxury does not apply on stage. As someone new to this story, I just about followed the basics, but I had to hastily read the script in the interval to make sure I’d got this right, and if it’s new to you, you can expect a similar experience.
But here’s the thing: this matters a lot less than you’d expect. Normally, a play like this would be a whodunnit first, with the detective at most a supporting story arc; here’s it’s the other way round, the mystery being a supporting story arc for Sherlock as a person. It is when regular Inspector Athelney-Jones comes in that this really starts to get in motion. Holmes and the Insepctor have an old score to settle, or at least the Inspector does – he resents Holmes for showing him up on a previous and practically arrests everyone in the house simply to spite Holmes. Holmes, meanwhile, is portrayed very well as a crime obsessive: if left to his own devices, he treats mysteries as games to be played and won with little regard for the human side. In fact, the plot thread which captures the Holmes/Watson partnership the best is that, for all the brilliant detective work, the case only really moves forwards when Watson persuades Holmes to win Athelney-Jones over and make him on equal partner in the case.
There wasn’t a weak link in the company and everyone played to their strengths, but there’s two people who particularly deserve acclamation. In the cast, I was most impressed with Christopher Glover. All of the cast apart from Holmes play multiple parts, but Glover is one of the most versatile performances I’ve seen, from the bold-as-brass Inspector to an assortment of Indian characters when the story goes back to the treasure’s murky origins. But the long overdue recognition I must give is Blackeyed’s resident designer, Victoria Spearing. It’s long overdue because she’s been the constant presence in all of the Blackeyed productions I’ve mentioned here and many more. All of the productions have been enhanced by the sets, with the Gothic theme shining through all the Gothic-themed plays. The Sign of Four is one of the best though, with a multi-purpose set being used to form everything from 221b Baker Street to horse and cart to ship chases to forts in colonial India. This needs to be seen to be truly appreciated, but it’s about time I acknowledged what an asset she is to the company.
Nick Lane does not make any changes as radical as he did for Jekyll and Hyde – and it would have been a lot to ask to pull off a gamble on that scale twice. But there is still one interesting change, and that’s a change of emphasis. The original book – whether it was because the public of the time didn’t know, or didn’t want to know – gave a very sanitised depiction of the setting of the Indian Rebellion of 1857. This play does not beat about the bush with the realities of the British East India Company, and does not hold back with the brutality from both sides. And the un-glossed version works very well: it convincingly portrays Sherlock’s adversaries as both brutal but understandable; and the blood-soaked trail of the stolen treasure is very befitting of the fate that befalls everyone who holds it. That’s the thing I like the most about Nick Lane’s adaptations – whenever he makes changes, he does not work against the story but instead works with the strengths in the story, wherever they may be.
You’ll have to concentrate if you’re going to make the most of out this play, and it’s a shame that so much of the mystery has to be concertinaed into such a short stretch of the play, but Blackeyed Theatre got the priority right here: other fictional detectives might serve as vehicles for various whodunnits, but you are really missing out when a Sherlock Holmes mystery downplays Sherlock as a person. That’s five consecutive plays without a weak link now. Middlesbrough was supposed to be on of the final calling points on the tour, but it’s been extended again and now includes, out of all things, a month-long tour of China. And if we are to showcase one of Britain’s most legendary heroes, there can surely be few companies who can do Sherlock and John more justice that Blackeyed Theatre do.
Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four makes a final north-east stop at the Stephen Joseph Theatre on the 30th May – 1st June.