“The game is afoot!” Blackeyed Theatre are back on tour with another adaptation of a classic work of literature – this time writer & director Nick Lane has turned to Arthur Conan Doyle, tackling Sherlock Holmes’ The Sign of Four. This is the second full novel featuring the famous detective, following on from A Study in Scarlet, with Holmes and Watson now established at 221b Baker Street.
In the absence of a case to crack, Sherlock is bored. He turns first to the needle (cocaine is his current drug of choice) and then to teasing his friend – with contributions from Mrs Hudson – in a bid to stimulate his mind and pass the time. Watson’s blushes are spared over “the legend of the spotted dog” when Mary Morstan arrives with an intriguing story to tell, and a new mystery for Holmes to solve. She was due to meet her father at the Langham Hotel back in December 1878 (ten years ago), but he disappeared before she arrived and hasn’t been seen since; since she answered an anonymous newspaper ad in 1882, Mary has received a single pearl each year – the final one requesting a meeting, but no further details. In order to track down her mysterious benefactor, Sherlock is plunged into the Indian Rebellion of 1857, as well as a tangle with Detective Athelney-Jones…
The stories of Sherlock Holmes are perennial favourites – all the more so since the much-admired BBC TV series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. What’s so striking when you read the books themselves is just how modern they sound, and how familiar the world seems; it’s something that’s so ripe for re-telling, and makes for particularly thrilling theatre. It’s about the core friendship as much as the mysteries; a fine balance between both elements is struck, making the pair’s interactions an enjoyable and meaningful diversion from the investigation.
Casting, therefore, is incredibly important; a believable relationship needs to be portrayed by the duo, as well as carrying off their own individual performances. Luke Barton and Joseph Derrington have a terrific chemistry as Holmes and Watson, battling with words and exchanging seemingly instinctive glances – the dynamic is perfect. Derrington captures Watson’s combination of exasperation and awe, demonstrating his own intelligence (he is a trained doctor, after all) and wearing his heart on his sleeve. Opposite him, Barton has Holmes’ cool, emotional detachment down to a tee, driven entirely by logic – Holmes’ deductions roll off his tongue in an impressive display of verbal dexterity.
Mention should also go to Stephanie Rutherford as Mary, complementing Watson’s personality brilliantly – leading to some amusingly awkward exchanges between the pair, which eventually leads to a proposal.
Tristan Parkes’ compositions are an excellent addition, livening up some scenes in unexpected ways (the flute backing Sherlock’s pocket watch deduction is inspired) – as well as enhancing the more action-packed scenes. To round it all off, Victoria Spearing’s set design is rather impressive. Influences from the Indian connection seep in, and it’s also easily rearrangeable depending on what’s needed in a particular scene: carriage, boat – you name it, you can depict it!
My verdict? A hugely entertaining and gripping new production, staying faithful to the spirit of the original whilst taking on a life of its own – you won’t be disappointed.
Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four runs at Greenwich Theatre until 11 May 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office.