Eight Christmases ago Patrick Barlow’s comic stage version of the classic spy novel (and Alfred Hitchcock film) The Thirty Nine Steps was a big seasonal hit at the Liverpool Playhouse. It also ran for an incredible nine years in the West End and still tours, returning to the Playhouse just last year. Now the Playhouse are hoping to repeat that success with the UK premiere of an American adaptation of the celebrated Sherlock Holmes mystery The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville is a blend of comedy and thriller, and as with The Thirty Nine Steps much of the entertainment comes from the fact that a small number of actors (five) play a dizzying number of characters (forty two). Jay Taylor and Patrick Robinson are the closest the onstage maelstrom has to a still calm centre as, respectively, they remain Sherlock Holmes and his loyal associate Dr Watson for the duration of the evening.
Despite the comic mayhem most of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original plot survives intact. Sir Charles Baskerville has been found dead on the moors near his grand country house, a look of horror on his face and the footprints of a gigantic hound close by. Holmes is asked to investigate. Has the Baskerville family curse struck again, and can he prevent Sir Charles’s heir, who’s arrived from Texas to take up his inheritance, becoming its next victim?
Jay Taylor is a consummate Holmes, surrounded by clouds of billowing smoke as he sucks ruminatively on a pipe and applies his fearsome intellect to the case. Patrick Robinson is also excellent as Watson, trying desperately hard to match his friend’s feats of deduction but rarely succeeding. His character has some of the play’s funniest moments and Robinson pulls them off superbly. Even so, the three other actors (Bessie Carter, Ryan Pope and Edward Harrison) come close to stealing the show through the immense skill they display in rising to the challenge of switching at breakneck speed from one role to another, deploying a range of accents including German, Scottish, American and Spanish. There are lightning fast changes of costume, and in one scene Edward Harrison manages to play two characters in conversation with each other simply by changing hats.
The zany, crowd-pleasing humour takes some familiar and much loved forms: often it is Pythonesque and individual characters are reminiscent of Manuel from Fawlty Towers, Baldrick from Blackadder and Igor from Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein. Plot developments come rather too thick and fast in the second half, when the storyline can be a bit hard to follow, but the comic energy never flags.
The sets are wonderfully atmospheric, taking us from Holmes’s rooms in Baker Street to the ‘dark, forbidding glory’ of the Baskervilles’ gloomy ancestral pile and out onto the spooky, desolate moors. There are also some tremendous visual, lighting and sound effects, with moving trains, flying cows and – of course – the bloodcurdling howl of the legendary hound.
Baskerville is perfect midwinter fare, sending a shiver down your spine one minute and tickling your funnybone the next. The Playhouse may well have conjured up another Christmas hit.
**** A howling success
Photos ©Ellie Kurttz
Baskerville continues at the Playhouse, Liverpool until Saturday 13 January.