Review: The Hound of the Baskervilles, Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne, until Saturday, October 30

Live theatre returns to the Devonshire Park this week, with the Original Theatre Company’s riotous production of The Hound of the Baskervilles. And it is one long howl of laughter, writes Kevin Anderson.

Thursday, 28th October 2021, 10:55 am
Updated Friday, 29th October 2021, 9:13 am

With no fourth wall, the three actors are in dialogue with the audience from the outset. It’s a style of theatre that has grown organically over the past decade. From the wonderful “improv” shows of the Edinburgh Fringe, through the madcap professional productions based around a 39 Steps format, they are guaranteed to entertain.

There is even a sort of sub-genre in the shape of the Cornley Drama Society, where absolutely everything Goes Wrong. Ridiculous, but we still laugh out loud.

The trick, of course, is to give the impression of a production careering almost out of control, when actually everything is finely tuned, superbly timed, decisively delivered. You throw in a bit of slapstick, plenty of physical theatre and costume changes at the speed of jugglers, and you work with a tiny cast playing a dozen characters each.

The Hound of the Baskervilles: Niall Ransome, Jake Ferretti, Serena Manteghi. Picture from Pamela Raith SUS-211029-090916001

This production, from the always reliable Original Theatre company, brims with all those qualities – except that everything Goes Right. The three actors seldom pause for breath as they enact this favourite Conan Doyle tale of terror on the moors - actually staying quite close to the original plot, and capturing the essence of the Holmes and Watson characters.

All three have CVs stacked with this stuff. Jake Ferretti (Dog in the Night Time at the National) delivers an inscrutable, knowingly ascetic Holmes, his intellect always superior to mere mortals like Watson – Niall Ransome (39 Steps and a string of Goes Wrong credits), slightly baffled but always engaging. And Serena Manteghi (Build a Rocket national tour) is a preposterous Sir Henry, full of aristocratic eccentricity.

In Lotte Wakeham’s assuredly frantic direction – and no, that isn’t a contradiction – all three are breathtakingly versatile, agile and energetic. Serena’s command of body language and facial expression is joyous, and Niall’s Watson just occasionally seems worryingly normal – a sort of still centre of a wildly spinning world – but don’t worry, it never lasts. Jake finesses in seconds from inscrutable detective into crazed manservant or fandango dancer in drag. The whole show races along with glorious insanity.

Timing is exquisitely precise, and all the effects are spot-on: huge credit to designer David Woodhead and sound-and-lighting guys Andy Graham and David Anderson. Half-term week has meant a healthy smattering of youngsters in the audiences, some perhaps enjoying their first taste of live theatre in its proper setting – and what better introduction could there be!

The Hound of the Baskervilles: Jake Ferretti, Niall Ransome, Serena Manteghi. Picture from Pamela Raith SUS-211029-090906001

There is, of course, a back story. Professional theatre has been absent from our lives for a year and a half, and its return brings joy, relief, and a swirl of emotions. The Original Theatre Company was here in Eastbourne, on the very point of opening a superb production of The Habit of Art with David Yelland and Matthew Kelly. This reviewer was actually in the stalls for its dress rehearsal, and I looked out my words for the Herald in that week of March 2020.

“The dear old Devonshire Park has survived two World Wars, not to mention the Boer War, and a thousand and one productions of varying quality. It will still be standing in a few weeks or months, or even in a year from now. On one level, it will feel as if we have never been away; but on another level, we will be changed. And, ironically, that is what theatre does.

The “habit of art” – the values, the messages, the insights, the beauty; the capacity to surprise, to provoke, to subvert; the imagination that can rip a story off the page and bring it to life; the creative spirit and the unshakeable belief in human beings – all of this will outlive and outlast any wretched virus, and the Habit of Art will take the stage again and fill those theatres. And all the other companies and artists, up and down the country, will burst with new life and energy and creativity. Yes, we will be changed and chastened, but we will fill the stalls once again. Hold on tight.”

And we did hold on. Thank goodness.

The Hound of the Baskervilles runs until Saturday 30th October. Booking details on www.eastbournetheatres.co.uk