We take our seats for the second act of The Hound of the Baskervilles (hereafter … Hound) and Jake Ferretti, playing Holmes (alongside a mélange of other characters) berates the audience for a Tweet he claims to have seen during the interval, from someone amongst us), A Tweet reporting discouraging things about the performance. After some amusing to-and-fro between actor and audience, the cast repeat the first half, in fast forward, to bring us back up to speed with where we left the action, at the point when we decanted the warm room and scarpered for our pre-ordered glasses of Merlot. I am not sure if deerstalker hats, Homburg coats and Twitter have ever been in the same sentence – never mind on the same moor – before, but it certainly speaks to the original, kooky… and at times utterly wonky nature of this take on the Conan Doyle classic of 1901. It’s not so much that the fourth wall has been taken down… so much as demolished with a wrecking ball to make way for some kind of postmodern multiplex. Toto… we’re not on Baker Street anymore. Well, not quite.
But let’s backtrack and rewind a little as audience… not unlike our actors. It all starts traditionally enough: The first glass of Malbec very welcome, as we sit in the foyer of the ever-comfy Lowry, my companion making the perhaps startling admission that, in his early 40s, he has never set foot in the theatre before. However, he did grow up in the wilds of the deepest South-West, so I am angling on him helping us navigate these moors. Amongst our fellow theatre goers are audience members sporting deerstalkers, fully immersing themselves in the spirit of it all and imbibing the evening with something of that Rocky Horror Picture Show participatory spirit. In the smaller Quays Theatre space within the Lowry, the stage is grey and bare, set in the grounds of a distant manor house, home to Sir Henry Baskerville. And the stage – playing the moor itself – is home to a creature even more menacing than Sir Henry and his fine upper-class whiskers. And the creature is on the prowl…
OK… so far so Sherlock. And I start my own journey to the moors with an aesthetic drawn from my first experience of the story – the 1939 movie starring Basil Rathbone (everyone from Peter Cushing to Peter Cook have since played Holmes in varied iterations of this story). But this current version, from the Original Theatre Company, takes that source material, injects a full syringe of pantomime farce in a place where that might be considered impolite, and then ramps the whole thing up to eleventy-stoopid. For there the tonal similarities with the source material get as lost as a man in the fog… which is, in fact, how the story starts. The fog closes in (from both stage left and stage right)… and then! Awoooooooooooo! What’s that? An animal? Some creature escaped from the very depths of Hades? (Well, the title of the play rather gives it away).
We’re off… And it’s a whole heap of fun. The entire cast – including Hound faves Dr Mortimer, the Stapleton siblings, butler Barrymore and escaped convict Selden – are covered (in amusingly swift costume changes) by just the three actors – Ferretti himself (alumnus of the National Theatre as well as TV from Corrie to The Other Boleyn Girl); Niall Ransome, who plays Watson et al (an actor with extensive theatre credentials) and Serena Manteghi, anchor to the one woman show How to Build a Rocket, now shoving a rocket up the posterior of Sir Henry Baskerville, in her portrayal. All actors play their varied roles with great energy and accomplished gusto. Brave and confident is the only way to go in these circumstances. Ferretti’s performance, for instance, has something of the priapic thrust of Rik Mayall about it… and I can offer no greater compliment. Manteghi is particularly successful in her performances, but in truth there is no weak link.
With a view to the fourth wall promptly coming down, and never going back up, the actors and audience share fully and willingly in the tomfoolery and humour of the show. Always moving at frenetic pace, an office desk swiftly becomes the double seat on a train, and we don’t do a double take… or Holmes’ London office might become Dartmoor with only the cunning use of a doorframe and some dry ice. The production is expertly controlled. Only adapted in 2007 by Steven Canny and John Nicholson, the play was chosen to form the first production for the reopening of the Bolton Octagon in July 2021. Directed creatively and cunningly by Lotte Wakeham, and now a touring production of the Original Theatre Company, for an evening of thoroughly daft escapism, it’s thoroughly recommended.
Conan Doyle may well be turning in his grave… but only from discomfort from laughing.
The Hound of the Baskervilles is at The Lowry from 1-5 February 2022 and touring until 26 February.
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