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

Darkness ends as The Woman In Black is back for Grand Opera House reopening

There’s a ghost in the House: Robert Goodale as lawyer Arthur Kipps and Antony Eden as The Actor in The Woman In Black, on tour at the Grand Opera House, York, next month. Picture: Tristram Kenton

AFTER 547 days, the Grand Opera House, York, will step out of the darkness and into The Woman In Black from September 13.

Robert Goodale will star as lawyer Arthur Kipps and Antony Eden as The Actor in PW Productions’ tour of Stephen Mallatratt’s 1987 adaptation of Susan Hill’s ghost story.

The Woman In Black tells the tale of an elderly lawyer obsessed with a curse that he believes has been cast over his family by the spectre of a “Woman in Black” for 50 years now.

“For my health, my reason,” he says, “The story must be told. I cannot bear the burden any longer.”

Robert Goodale: Returning to the role of Arthur Kipps in The Woman In Black. Picture: Tristram Kenton

He duly engages a young actor to help him tell that story and exorcise the fear that grips his soul, but although it begins innocently enough, the deeper they delve into his darkest memories, the more the borders between make-believe and reality begin to blur and the flesh starts to creep.

The Woman In Black last spooked York audiences at the Theatre Royal in November 2019, after earlier runs there in February 2013 and November 2014. Hill’s ghost is no stranger to the Grand Opera House’s boards either.

Mallatratt’s splendidly theatrical stage adaptation had begun life as a bonus Christmas show at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1987 in novelist Susan Hill’s hometown of Scarborough, and this latest touring production still retains its original director and designer, Robin Herford and Michael Holt. Well, if it ain’t broke, etc etc.

Likewise, Goodale is returning to the role he played at the Theatre Royal in 2019 for a tour that takes in Bath, Guilford, Oxford, Malvern, Shrewsbury, Manchester, Brighton, Glasgow, York, Blackpool, Stoke and Edinburgh.

Robert Goodale, left, and Antony Eden in a scene from The Woman In Black. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Tickets for the Grand Opera House’s September 13 to 18 run are on sale at atgtickets.com/venues/grand-opera-house-york.

One final thought: as much as The Woman In Black is a ghost story first and foremost, in Mallatratt’s hands, it is also a celebration of the craft of acting, the power of storytelling and the role of the imagination. All the more reason to welcome the reopening of the Grand Opera House, a theatre with a ghost of its own.

Did you know?

THE show that ran the week before darkness descended on the Grand Opera House under the Covid cloud was…Ghost Stories, Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s “supernatural sensation”, from March 10 to 14 2020.

The Caretaker in Ghost Stories at the Grand Opera House, York, in March 2020

REVIEW: What’s the secret to Ghost Stories’ success at Grand Opera House?

Ghost Stories from the past: lecturer Professor Goodman making a point (when Simon Lipkin played the role in London in this picture)

REVIEW: Ghost Stories, presented by Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, scaring all and sundry at Grand Opera House, York, until Saturday. Box office: 0844 871 3024 or at atgtickets.com/york

IT is not every play day that the writers send out a polite request to reviewers, and normally it would be a red rag to that most bullish of breeds: the hacked-off hack.

However, the seriously bearded duo of Andy Nyman and Leeds-born Jeremy Dyson, he of the deeply, madly, darkly twisted League of Gentlemen, do have a point.

Ghost Stories has been around for a decade now, going global and being transformed into a film too, but all the while “it has meant so much to us that critics the world over have kept [secret] the plot and secrets of our show when writing about it,” they say.

“We appreciate it makes life a little trickier for you by not divulging [the] plot, but because of your help, Ghost Stories remains a rare thing: a modern experience you have to see ‘spoiler-free’.”

Spoiler alert: there will be no spoiler alerts in this review to blow the cover of their audacious spooky conceit. What your reviewer can reveal, however, dear reader, is that he first saw this immersive fright-fest at the Ambassadors Theatre – a typically compressed, crowded, everyone-close-to-the-stage, venerable West End locale – only last autumn, and frankly it was just as joyously, seat-of-the-pants, phew, glad-to-have-got-through-that scary, second time around at the Grand Opera House on Tuesday night.

Not-so-secret request: writer-directors Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson

Even when knowing what was coming next. Much like returning to a favourite fairground ghost train or high-speed ride. In fact, that even added to the experience, and apparently others share that view, gleefully inviting the uninitiated to join them to break their Ghost Stories virginity. Just do as Andy and Jeremy say: tell them nothing, except maybe pass on this message: “We hope you have a great night and maybe even scream a bit.”

A bit? In reality, there is as much laughter as screaming in response to the brilliantly executed storytelling, stocked with its 15-rated “moments of extreme shock and tension”. “We strongly advise those of a nervous disposition to think very seriously before attending,” says the programme cover, which is a tad late for a warning and amounts to more of a dare.

Do note this, however. Anyone who leaves once the ghosts have started their work for the night is not allowed back in, and nor is there an interval. So, the strongest advice is to think very seriously of heading to the loo beforehand, should that fear of a discomfort break be more likely to make you nervous.

Unlike Stephen Mallatratt’s The Woman In Black, Ghost Stories is not one ghost story but three ghost stories, wrapped inside an over-arching, far darker psycho-drama that begins with Joshua Higgott’s Professor Phillip Goodman, a parapsychologist in obligatory brown corduroy, delivering a lecture, glass of water and dry wit at hand.

In a theatre with its own ghost, opposite the York Dungeon tourist attraction with its love of gory history, and in “Europe’s most haunted city” with a ghost tour around every corner, even a ghost bus ride and a York Ghost Merchants shop to counter the spread of Pottervirus in Shambles, Goodman should be feeling very much at home as he guides us through the history of our fascination with ghosts and expert ghost analysis of the past. So far, so para-normal.

All of this is a way to trap us into a false sense of security/strap us in for the very bumpy ghost rides ahead, each more alarming than the last, as lecture and lecturer seep in and out of each suspenseful story.

The night-watchman on his guard in Ghost Stories (again pictured in the 2019 London production)

Without giving anything away, these involve a seen-it-all-before night-watchman in a depository (Paul Hawkyard); a novice motorist in a car at night in a murky wood (Gus Gordon) and a flashy father-to-be in a nursery (Richard Sutton, still as outstanding as he was in the London run). What happens next? Relax, Andy, relax Jeremy, my bitten lips are now sealed.

Except to say, writer-directors Nyman and Dyson and fellow director Sean Holmes work their ghostly magic deliciously devilishly in tandem with Jon Bauser, a sleight-of-hand magician of a designer, far outwitting Hammer Horror.

James Farncombe’s lighting adds heart-stopping menace to the juddering frights, hand-held torches and all; Nick Manning’s disturbing, disorientating, jagged, sometimes deafening sound design assaults you from all sides, and Scott Penrose’s climactic special effects are terrifically terrifying.

Do keep what happens secret, but don’t keep the show secret. It deserves big houses, being all the better, the more who share the experience, even amid the worrisome shadow of Coronavirus.

”Sweet dreams, Andy and Jeremy,” say the ghost-story weavers as they sign off their letter to the fourth estate, politely teasing to the last.

Sweet dreams? Lovers of gripping theatre, devotees of the paranormal world, your nightmare would be to miss Ghost Stories, especially on Friday the 13th. You won’t rest until tickets are safe and secure in your hand.

Charles Hutchinson