Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four - a superb, original production

Sherlock Holmes at  the Devonshire Park Theatre
Sherlock Holmes at the Devonshire Park Theatre

Think of Sherlock Holmes, and what springs to mind? Pipes and deerstalkers?

Dusty old Basil Rathbone films? Visit the Devonshire Park Theatre this week, and you will come away with all the dust blown away.

With “Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four”, the Black-Eyed Theatre Company casts away the tired cliches and fills the stage with freshness and originality. Acting is assured, direction is imaginative and production values are sky-high. This is very fine theatre.

Stylish and just slightly stylised, the Black-Eyed team treats Conan Doyle’s original story with due respect, but also a dash of humour and irreverence. An exposition-heavy first half, in particular, might have been a pretty tedious haul, but the touch is light.

This, of course, is the era of the actor-musician, and the talented cast “musos” seize Tristan Parkes’ fabulous music and weave wonderful instrumental patterns around the action, some darkly atmospheric, some quirky, some quite jovial and impertinent: their best bits are a kind of syncopated New Orleans jazz pastiche, not exactly Victorian period but nobody minds.

It’s typical of the production, always inventive and never simply slavish to the period or the original source material. The Great Man is, to Sir Arthur’s template, cerebral, forensic, articulate and always inscrutable. As the action opens, he is mainlining the morphine to the gentle disapproval of Dr Watson. Luke Barton and Joseph Derrington are well matched as detective and mentor: more youthful than you had expected, but the better for that. Barton is nuanced and perplexing, but still sympathetic, while Derrington’s counterweight has wisdom and humanity.

There are only four other actors, but you’d never know it. Roles are

doubled, tripled and even quadrupled by a cast that fizzes with acting ability. The action rattles through London streets and out across a foggy Thames, and flashes back many years to Imperial India. Naturalistic it isn’t, but the accomplished little bursts of physical theatre are much more fun, turning the timbered set into carriages and barges, and pricelessly contriving a virtual corpse for Holmes and Watson to examine. This company conspires with its audience, and wraps us in as conspirators.

Christopher Glover convincingly plays all four Indian characters, and then has a lovely turn as the clumping police officer. Zach Lee switches from glowering pugilist McMurdo to improbable villain Jonathan Small. And the pick of Ru Hamilton’s roles is a creasingly camp Thaddeus.

Stephanie Rutherford has grace and a nice touch of fragility as the widow who prompts the investigation, and easily switches voice, body language and character to become two different working-class women.

Who takes the kudos? This excellent cast, or Nick Lane’s intelligent script and detailed, sensitive direction? Victoria Spearing’s awesome set, or Claire Childs who lights it so atmospherically and Naomi Gibbs who dresses the show to perfection. And movement director Emma Webb for all those clever choreographed exits and entrances. We reviewers always ensure a mention for the actors; but this superb production is a genuine team achievement.

By Kevin Anderson

Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four runs at the Devonshire Park Theatre until St=