REVIEW: The Hound Of The Baskervilles, Original Theatre Company/Bolton Octagon Theatre, at York Theatre Royal, until 23/10

Double act: Niall Ransome’s Dr Watson and Jake Ferretti’s Sherlock Holmes shake up The Hound Of The Baskervilles

MYSTERY and murk have abounded in York Theatre Royal’s hit and mist Haunted Season.

That mist descends once more, over a desolate Dartmoor of spectral trees and a grand house, looming in the distance, where the lights seem to twitch nervously. Except, this time, the foggy haze is emanating from Sir Charles Baskerville’s newly lit cigar in the country air, his face matching the contentment of a bygone Hamlet advert.

A bewhiskered, elegantly dressed Serena Manteghi has entered David Woodhead’s nocturnal set in the first guise of a hatful of such roles – putting the ‘Man’ into Manteghi as it were – on a fright-night when she will be playing men only.

Just as we are appreciating her miming – with immaculate timing to the sound-effect accompaniment of the opening and closing of gates and striking of a match – suddenly a ghastly howl quickens the heart.

Taking on 20 roles? Bring it on, say Niall Ransome, Jake Ferretti and Serena Manteghi

A look of terror, a futile attempt to escape, and Sir Charles and his cigar have snuffed it.

So far, so scary, albeit in the exaggerated manner of a silent film, in a startling start where the titular hound is but a sound. Spooky, melodramatic, beyond immediate explanation: this is the perfect Conan Doyle recipe for the arrival of Holmes and Watson.

On bound Jake Ferretti’s superior Sherlock and Niall Ransome’s hearty doctor, promptly shattering theatre’s fourth wall as they demand applause for Serena’s miming, then introduce themselves and how the show will work.

Here comes the “howlarious” version of The Hound Of The Baskervilles penned in 2007 for comedy clowns Peepolykus by John Nicholson and Steven Canny and now, 150 productions down the line, picked up by Bolton Octagon Theatre artistic director Lotte Wakeham and the Original Theatre Company.

In the frame: Jake Ferretti, Niall Ransome and Serena Manteghi in The Hound Of The Baskervilles

It still carries its original health warning for “anyone suffering from a heart condition, a nervous disorder, low self-esteem or a general inability to tell fact from fiction”. In truth, the cast and indeed the characters are most at risk. The audience, by comparison, needs only sit back, laugh loudly and burst regularly into applause.

The facts are that Ferretti, Ransome and Manteghi must play 20 characters between them, multifarious accents et al. Isn’t the heir, Sir Henry Baskerville, supposed to be Canadian, Serena is asked. “Yes, but I can’t do that accent,” she replies.

In the original, the cast of three were all men and Holmes suddenly turned Spanish in the handsome form of Javier Marzan. Such is the strength yet flexibility of Canny and Nicholson’s format that we now have the added pleasure of watching Serena Manteghi as she deepens her voice, mirrors male movements and tropes, breaks out of character under emotional duress at the first act’s finale, and once more confirms what an outstanding talent this former University of York student is.

This time it is Ferretti’s Costa Rican Miss Stapleton who brings an Hispanic flourish to the production, directed crisply and crunchily for the tour by Tim Jackson.

Funny business: Niall Ransome’s Dr Watson, Serena Manteghi’s Sir Henry Baskerville and Jake Ferretti’s Sherlock Holmes make light of tackling the mystery

Comedy, yes, but send-up or spoof, no. Canny and Nicholson are true to Conan Doyle’s story, re-imagining scenes rather than inventing new ones, but always with the fourth wall in danger of needing new bricks again.

“We wanted to be as faithful as possible to the drama and intrigue of Conan Doyle’s masterpiece, while setting about discovering how to use a company of three actors to tell the story as inventively as we could,” said the writers.

“It became clear very quickly that simple props, rapid costume and scene changes, precision comic timing and a determined commitment to stupidity were going to play a significant part in our version.”

Think of the works of Lip Service’s Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding, Nobby Dimon’s North Country Theatre and Mikron Theatre, or Patrick Barlow’s “touching up” of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, or Mischief’s The Play That Goes Wrong, as Ferretti, Ransome and Manteghi keep veering off the straight and narrow but somehow still reach their intended destination.

Niall Ransome’s Dr Watson has a blast in The Hound Of The Baskervilles

In this case, this is the art of making a drama out of staff-shortage crisis – how very 2021 – but not needing to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear because the source material is from the top drawer.

Canny and Nicholson have it right in saying the “determined commitment to stupidity” is crucial too: a characteristic that benefits from Ferretti’s Holmes, in particular, taking everything so seriously, or the pathos in Ransome’s even straighter-faced Watson having a propensity to draw his pistol on anyone and anything, especially woodland animals.

This peaks at the outset of the second act after a Tweet “complaint” from an audience member – it was a letter in the original! – about Holmes’s lack of commitment to solving the crime prompts Ferretti to demand the right to re-enact the entire first half. A breathless snapshot replay ensues.

Someone so bright acting so dumb and supercilious is but one of the delights of seeing the Holmes and Watson partnership being poked out of its comfort zone, a shift as rewarding in its comedic interplay as Morecambe and Wise’s jousting.

The Hound Of The Baskervilles goes barking mad in this amiably daft comedy, at the cost of Woman In Black or Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s Ghost Stories scares, but that sacrifice of bite is a price well worth paying. Howlarious indeed.

Performances: 7.30pm, plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 623568 or at

Review by Charles Hutchinson

Are you ready for extreme terror, tension and ghost tremors at Grand Opera House?

The lecturer in Ghost Stories: “The supernatural is purely a trick of the mind,” he says…but is it?

THE Grand Opera House, York, already has its own ghost, one said to call out the first name of a new member of staff in the quiet of the auditorium on first acquaintance.

No doubt that will intrigue Professor Goodman, ahead of the lecturer’s visit to the Cumberland Street theatre from March 10 to 14 as the investigative fulcrum of writer-directors Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s “supernatural sensation”, Ghost Stories, on its first national tour.

On the road since January 7 after completing its latest West End run at The Ambassadors Theatre, London, the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre production should feel at home in York, the self-proclaimed most haunted city in Europe.

What’s more, with the Grand Opera House’s proximity to the York Dungeon, “York’s scariest tourist attraction”, where better for Nyman and Dyson’s global hit to be spooking?

Premiered a decade ago and turned into a film too, Ghost Stories invites its captive audience to “enter a nightmarish world, full of thrilling twists and turns, where all your deepest fears and most disturbing thoughts are imagined live on stage”.

Expect a “fully sensory and electrifying encounter in the ultimate twisted love-letter to horror, a supernatural edge-of-your-seat theatrical experience like no other”, as Professor Goodman strives to prove the supernatural is “purely a trick of the mind” in the face of three stories that beg to differ.

“Ghost Stories has never really gone away, running in various incarnations since the original production a decade ago, going into the West End, then Canada, Moscow,” says co-writer Jeremy Dyson, best known for his work with those twisted humourists The League Of Gentlemen.

“It was done in Russian in Russia but we had to maintain that it was set in Britain because apparently no Russian is afraid of a ghost.”

Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson: co-writers and directors of Ghost Stories

The latest British incarnation opened at the Lyric Hammersmith last March, whereupon it was picked up by commercial producers keen to take it on the road. “We’d always wanted to do that but never been able to do so, even though we knew just how much people wanted to see it, but we were told it ‘wasn’t tourable’.”

Until now, until Jon Bausor came up with a design that could play both The Ambassadors Theatre and theatres around the country.

“He’s made it possible to squash the set into a van!” says Jeremy, who lives in Ilkley, by the way. “Each time we’ve staged the play, we’ve been able to solve another problem, get rid of another niggle, and finally we have the production that is totally to our satisfaction.

“The show’s been going down really well on tour, and it will fit perfectly into York with all its ghost stories and the York Dungeon opposite the Grand Opera House.”

Why are we so drawn to ghost stories, Jeremy? “I think there are lots of reasons,” he says. “One of them is obvious: death and the afterlife, which is a personal concern to all of us, and ghost stories are a way to approach such an overwhelming concern.

“That’s particularly so in our increasingly secular society, where there’s a hunger for the mysterious, the uncanny, the inexplicable, which once upon a time would have come under the auspices of the church and religion.

“That’s part of it, and also when it comes to a show like Ghost Stories, there’s the entertainment and the thrill, the fairground element.”

Nyman, London actor, director and writer, and Dyson, screen and stage writer and author, have been friends for a “very long time”. “Since we were teenagers, in fact,” says Jeremy. “We met when we were 15 and one of the things we bonded over was horror movies at the dawn of the video age, renting those films to watch them together.

The Caretaker: one of the three Ghost Stories to be told at the Grand Opera House, York

“We’ve had our individual careers and we’d never thought of working together, but out of the blue Andy called me with this idea of having three men sitting telling ghost stories after he saw The Vagina Monologues [Eve Ensler’s show with three women telling stories].

“It was a very intriguing idea that was enough to hook me straightaway, though we then veered away from that initial construction over a long gestation period.

“Creating Ghost Stories was very much a case of sitting in a room together, talking about it for a year, and then getting together, bashing out the outline, working every day for a week, when we pretty much hammered it out, because we’d been thinking about it for so long.”

Ghost Stories has drawn comparisons with Stephen Mallatratt’s stage adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black, premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in 1987 and still running in the West End, but Jeremy was keen that Ghost Stories should stand in its own right.

“We wanted very much to create a theatre experience that we hadn’t had before, in terms of being a very immersive piece of theatre, and we also like the challenge of taking things that you’re familiar thematically from horror films and seeing if we could transfer them to the stage.”

A further element is at play in Ghost Stories. “Andy and I both have a love of conjuring and magic; Andy has worked with Derren Brown for 20, so we wanted to build that into the show’s structure,” says Jeremy. “We wanted to look at how you can create a magical effect with a combination of storytelling and technology, and that’s what we’ve achieved.”

Ghost Stories promises “moments of extreme shock and tension” at the Grand Opera House, York, from March 10 to 14. Box office: 0844 871 3024 or at Unsuitable for anyone under 15 years old.

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