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 yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Review by Charles Hutchinson

Why Serena is playing only men in farcical overhaul of The Hound Of The Baskervilles

Niall Ransome as Dr Watson, Jake Ferretti as Sherlock Holmes and Serena Manteghi as Henry Baskerville in The Hound Of The Baskervilles, on tour at York Theatre Royal from Tuesday

THE Hound Of The Baskervilles is at loose this Haunted Season at York Theatre Royal, returning Serena Manteghi to the city where she cut her acting teeth.

“I studied [at the University of York] and lived in York for many years and still work there often,” she says, ahead of the October 19 to 23 run. “It’s my spiritual home and I’ve been assured I can now call myself an honorary Yorkshire lass, so I’m very much looking forward to heading back there.”

Although based in London, Serena has spent plenty of time up north this summer, performing in early August in Alexander Wright and Phil Grainger’s Eurydice at Theatre At The Mill, Stillington, and later that month in the Harrogate Theatre community play Our Gate in and around the Wesley Centre, Harrogate.

Now she is part of a fast-moving cast of three in Lotte Wakeham’s production of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most celebrated detective tale as it receives a farcical overhaul, with Serena playing only men in Steven Canny and John Nicholson’s adaptation, first staged by Peepolykus in 2007 with West End success.

The story is as familiar as ever: world-renowned detective Sherlock Holmes and his colleague Dr Watson are asked to unravel the mystery surrounding the untimely death of Sir Charles Baskerville. Amid rumours of a cursed giant hound loose on the moors, they must act fast in order to save the Baskerville family’s last remaining heir.

“Yes, they’re all male characters that I’m playing, but I’ve not really thought about their gender; you just play the character – and I have played men before,” says Serena Manteghi, as she shares a laugh with Niall Ransome. left, and Jake Ferretti

What ensues, however, is an exhilarating collision of farce, ingenious theatrical invention and comic performances to “offer a brand-new twist on the greatest detective story of all time”, in the hands of the multi role-playing Serena, Jake Ferretti’s Sherlock Holmes and Niall Ransome’s Dr Watson.

“I play a whole host of colourful characters, including Sir Charles Baskerville, Dr Mortimer, a helpful London cabbie, three ‘yokels’ (one wise, two less so) and last but not least, the romantic lead (after Dr Watson, of course) and newest Squire of Baskerville Hall, Sir Henry Baskerville,” says Serena, who heads to York after breaking in the Bolton Octagon Theatre and Original Theatre Company production on the road under tour director Tim Jackson following rehearsals in London.

“Yes, they’re all male characters that I’m playing, but I’ve not really thought about their gender; you just play the character – and I have played men before.

“There were male characters in Build A Rocket, Christopher York’s one-woman play I did for the Stephen Joseph Theatre [Scarborough], and I played Rene Magritte in Belt Up Theatre’s Lorca Is Dead [York Theatre Royal, May 2010].

“And there are female characters in this show, played by Jake Ferretti, just as they were played by men when it was created by three wonderful performers [Javier Marzan, John Nicholson and Jason Thorpe]. I predominantly play Sir Henry, in the spirit of that original production.”

Serena Manteghi as LV in The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in 2017. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

One consequence has come from the four weeks of shows so far, demanding more than “Olympian dexterity” from Serena, Jack and Niall. “It’s been quite hard on my voice because I’m having to use a much lower register all the time, so I have to work hard on my warm-ups,” says Serena, who is no stranger to challenging her vocal cords, having played LV, with all her singing voices, in The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice at the SJT in 2017.

Likewise, The Hound Of The Baskervilles, and indeed myriad Sherlock Holmes stories have been stretched in multiple ways. “I think the books are woven so deeply and lovingly into our cultural vocabulary that, growing up in the UK, you feel the infamous Holmes and Watson are just a part of the literary furniture, as it were. Like Father Christmas,” says Serena.

“That said, I absolutely loved the recent BBC adaptations [starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman] and would tune in as soon as they were aired for fear of someone spoiling the mystery.

“I think the diverse versions work because the Holmes and Watson partnership is so iconic; the performers and the audience begin from such a familiar starting point and that means you can take them on a slightly unexpected journey.”

Holmes and Watson are embedded in our cultural psyche as much as Morecambe & Wise, suggests Serena. “They’re loved just as much, and that dynamic is beautifully honoured by Jack and Niall; that joy Holmes and Watson have in each other’s company, which is so apparent in Conan Doyle’s writing,” she says.

“It’s an utter pleasure to perform ,” says Serena Manteghi of Peepolykus duo Steven Canny and John Nicholson’s stage adaptation of The Hound Of The Baskervilles, as she teams up with Jake Ferretti and Niall Ransome

“Any literary die-hard fanatics of Conan Doyle will be pleasantly surprised by our show: it’s a comedy retelling,  written by a well-established comedy partnership in Steven Canny and John Nicholson – we met John when he came to see it in Exeter – and it’s an utter pleasure to perform. You’d be very hard-pressed not to enjoy yourself watching this play.”

Ah, but  is it still scary, Serena? “There are some scares, but it leans heavily on the humour, less so on scariness,” she says. “Every spooky note is buttoned with a gag, but it’s not a send-up. It never mocks the story; it’s more an affectionate take on it.

“Very often, when you have farcical versions of the classics, you have to leave behind the story, but here you do get the whole story, just laden with joy and fun.”

Look out for David Woodhead’s set and costume designs too. “They’re beautiful. That’s another reason to see the show,” says Serena. “The set is just gorgeous to behold, elevated and malleable for multiple uses, and everything we wear is beautifully made.” In other words, no tat, Sherlock!

Original Theatre Company and Octagon Theatre Bolton present The Hound Of The Baskervilles, York Theatre Royal, October 19 to 23, 7.30pm; 2pm, Thursday; 2.30pm, Saturday. Age guidance: eight upwards. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

By Charles Hutchinson

Review: Home, I’m Darling, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, until August 14

Sandy Foster’s Judy and Tom Kanji’s Johnny in Home, I’m Darling at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

HOME, I’m Darling is back at work after taking leave from the SJT stage for an extended Covid-enforced hiatus.

A positive test among the company de-railed Liz Stevenson’s production from July 19 to July 27, then a second one until August 2, but as if with foresight, thankfully Laura Wade’s play had been booked in for a long run from July 9 to August 14.

This still leaves plenty of time to see the SJT’s co-production with Theatre by the Lake, Keswick and Octagon Theatre, Bolton.

Already this summer the SJT has played host to a play with past and present interwoven into one story: Alan Ayckbourn’s The Girl Next Door, where 1942 wartime rubs up against 2020 Covid times, a gap of 78 years yet only a garden hedge.

In Laura Wade’s 2018 comedy, the setting is now, but “perfect couple” Judy (Sandy Foster) and Johnny (Tom Kanji) embrace 1950s’ family values, from their clothes to their décor, their meals to their bedroom bliss.

It is like flicking through an old catalogue, all glossy and surely too, too perfect, behind the beautifully stylised playing of Foster and Kanji. 21st century reality is knocking ever louder on the door: Judy had been made redundant from her job in finance at 38, choosing to be the out-of-Stepford wife, cleaning, baking, making lemon curd, but this puts extra pressure on Johnny to gain a promotion and to meet the mortgage.

Twisting time is here: Susan Twist in rehearsal for her role as Sylvia in Home, I’m Darling

What’s more, withdrawing from the outside world leaves Judy as the bird in the gilded cage, controlling but losing control, switched off from the news, paddling against the tide with her impressionable friend Fran (Vicky Binns), vulnerable to being duped by the predatory Marcus (Sam Jenkins-Shaw).

Billed as a comedy, the tone turns from frothy farce to being ever darker, pricklier too, the stylish surface scratched away by the grit, the reality check coming in the form of a devastating lecture from Judy’s mother, Susan Twist’s Sylvia, whose Twist of the knife elicits provokes a spontaneous burst of applause from the entire audience.

Parallels have been drawn with Ayckbourn’s bleaker comedies, high praise indeed, and Stevenson’s direction elicits superb performances from her cast, who remain believable, for all the heightened playing of the early scenes, as the tension rises.

This production is all the more timely, when people have been asked to stay at home in Covid lockdown, and amid rising job losses for women, but Wade’s themes of feminism and gender roles pre-date the pandemic, as she bursts the bubble of outward contentment with an Ibsen scalpel.

By the end, Fifties’ nostalgia has had its day, but Wade’s couple have a future, Home, I’m Darling duly living up to Stevenson’s promise that it will “send people out on a high, and that’s something we all need at the moment after what we’ve been through”.

It is all the better for being staged in The Round, where Helen Coyston’s Fifties’ retro set looks so at home yet simultaneously awkward. Just as it should.

Box office: 01723 370541 or at sjt.uk.com

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be in Laura Wade’s comedy of domestic blister, Home I’m Darling, at Stephen Joseph Theatre

When domestic bliss turns to domestic blister: Sandy Foster as Judy and Tom Kanji as Johnny in Laura Wade’s comedy Home. I’m Darling. Rehearsal picture: Ellie Kurttz

SWEET peas in the garden; homemade lemon curd in the kitchen; marital bliss in the bedroom; Judy and Johnny seem to be the perfect couple. Sickeningly happy, in fact.

Yet is their marriage everything it seems? Are there cracks in their happiness? What happens when the 1950s’ family values they love so much hit the buffer in the 21st century, as the couple discover that nostalgia ain’t what it used to be?

So runs the bumpy course of Laura Wade’s comedy, Home, I’m Darling, premiered in 2018 by Theatr Clwyd and the National Theatre and now revived in a co-production between Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, the Octagon Theatre, Bolton, and Theatre by the Lake, in Keswick, with a cast of Sandy Foster, Tom Kanji, Vicky Binns, Sam Jenkins-Shaw, Sophie Mercell and Susan Twist.

The director is Liz Stevenson, Theatre by the Lake’s artistic director, best remembered in York for her beautiful 2018 touring production of The Secret Garden at the Theatre Royal.

“Home, I’m Darling is the perfect way to welcome back audiences to live theatre again,” she says. “Sharp, funny and incredibly timely, it’s one of those plays that will have everyone chuckling, discussing and debating long into the evening. I can’t wait to bring this brilliant play to life in-the-round with this incredible creative team and with three fantastic northern theatres.”

Director Liz Stevenson in rehearsals for Home, I’m Darling. Picture: Ellie Kurttz

Home, I’m Darling has taken longer than first planned by Liz to find a northern home (or three!). “I’d heard so much about the first production, read the script and thought it would be a really interesting play for Theatre by the Lake, but then the pandemic happened and stopped everything,” she recalls.

“There’d been no firm plans; I just thought, ‘one day I bet this play will sit really well on the Keswick stage’. But when Theatre by the Lake, the Octagon and the SJT started talking about play titles for a partnership, this play came up.

“Then we started an online play-reading club with a group of about 40 people of all ages, and this was one of the plays we discussed, and it just confirmed it would go down really well if we ever did it.”

Roll on to summer 2021, and here comes Liz’s production. “It’s very funny, very entertaining, and because it’s in this 1950s-style household, there’s lots of fun and colour to it, but because the play is set now, there are lots of relatable, modern-day issues: feminism, gender roles…” she says.

… “We spoke to Laura [Wade] during rehearsals about people thinking about spending more time at home when losing their jobs, and then of course that’s what happened with the Covid lockdowns.

“Shutting herself in a world that she’s kept so small”: Sandy Foster’s Judy in Home, I’m Darling. Picture: Ellie Kurttz

“People have had to spend time at home, where we’re all expected to have a family, hobbies, a clean home and a talent for baking. Pre-Covid, in this play, here we have someone who wants that life, who wants to be the contented housewife and wants to see people’s reaction to that.”

Perfect timing for her production, then. “It’s a play that will send people out on a high, and that’s something we all need at the moment after what we’ve been through,” says Liz.

Without giving too much away, Liz, what’s the plot? “Judy is 38, she’s been made redundant, and she’s thinking, ‘Do you know what, I’m not going to get another job, working in finance, working very long days, working at weekends’,” she outlines.

“Now she’s becoming an expert baker, an expert cleaner, and it looks like everything is perfect, but then cracks appear and over a fortnight you see things fall apart, as they think, ‘Do we want to spend our lives like this?’.

“She has a home that’s beautiful, where she has control, looking after that home and husband Johnny, but when you push that, it becomes unhealthy as friends start poking holes into this ‘perfect’ bubble, where she has shut herself in a world that she’s kept so small.

“That’s the realisation that Judy has by the end of the play, where she says, ‘I think I’m scared that I’m going to struggle to catch up with the world’. It’s about balance in your life and Judy doesn’t have that balance; she’s gone from one extreme to the other.”

Sam Jenkins-Shaw and Vicky Binns in rehearsal for Home, I’m Darling

“But what’s brilliant about Laura’s writing is that she’s not being heavy-handed; she’s putting questions out there, rather than coming up with answers, and those questions have become even more relevant with people working from home.”

Home, I’m Darling is a comedy with darkness at its edges. “A few people at the play-reading club who read it likened it to an Ayckbourn play, where it’s very funny, but there’s a lot of tension,” says Liz.

“The whole play is set in one space with the actors doing their brilliant thing as the characters’ behaviour affects each other and you see the tension rise within that concentrated setting.

“This production is the first time this play has been staged in the Round, so whereas previously the stage was like a doll’s house with the roof taken off, the benefit of the Round is you are so close to the actors, you will spot every pulling of a raised eyebrow.”

Like so many who work in theatre, Liz has experienced an unparalleled past 15 months. “It’s been really tough for us at Theatre by the Lake; we closed in March last year and we’re still closed, though we have lots of activity in the community and we’re doing a festival with English Touring Theatre at Crow Park [Keswick] in August,” she says.

“But when we do Home, I’m Darling from October 6 to 30, it will be my first show IN the theatre two years after my appointment as artistic director, though we have been rehearsing it inside the building, which has been lovely, and we can’t wait to see a show being put on here again.”

“Darlings, we’re home,” she can finally say at that point.

Home, I’m Darling, Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough, tonight until August 14. Box office: sjt.uk.com

A Twist at the end: Susan Twist in a scene in rehearsal from Home, I’m Darling. Picture: Ellie Kurttz