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

PLAY ON! Amanda Whittington takes fight for women’s football to dramatic climax in Mikron Theatre’s summer tour

Earning their stripes: Mikron Theatre Company’s poster for this summer’s tour of Amanda Whittington’s Atalanta Forever

MIKRON Theatre Company kick off their 2020 tour of Amanda Whittington’s new women’s football play, Atalanta Forever, on April 18.

Waiting in the wings is the Marsden company’s York performance at Scarcroft Allotments on June 2 at 6pm.

From the writer of Ladies Day, Ladies Day Down Under and Mighty Atoms for Hull Truck Theatre and Bollywood Jane for the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Atalanta Forever tells the story of pioneering women footballers in 1920.

In post-war Britain, women’s football is big news. Across the country, all-girl teams are pulling huge crowds in fund-raising games for wounded soldiers.

Huddersfield amateurs Ethel and Annie take a shot at the big time. Teammates at Atalanta AFC, they are soon tackling new football skills, mastering the offside rule and kicking back at the doubters.

This summer’s audiences are invited to “come and cheer for Atalanta as our plucky underdogs learn how to play the game, take on the legendary teams of the era and find the toughest opponent of all is the Football Association”.

Whittington’s play is based on the true story of one of three women’s football teams in Huddersfield in post-war Britain. As told through the lives of two young women, Atalanta Ladies Football Club was formed in 1920 to “provide games for the women of Huddersfield, to foster a sporting spirit, and a love of honour among its members”.

During the Great War, several women’s football teams had sprung up around the country, usually based in factories or munitions works, and proved a great success in raising money for hospitals, war widows and so on. 

The popularity of the women’s game may be measured by the estimated 25,000 crowd that packed Hillsborough, Sheffield, for the Huddersfield team’s next game with the Dick, Kerr Ladies FC of Preston on May 4, when they lost 4-0 to their much more experienced opponents.

In the wider football world, the growing popularity of women’s football was now causing concern. The FA even saw it as taking support away from the men’s game and on December 5, 1921, they banned women’s teams from using FA affiliated grounds.

Before folding in 1924, the pioneering Huddersfield Atalanta Ladies FC had raised more than £2,000 for various charities.

“I still feel the injustice and the sense of shame for wanting to do something I wasn’t meant to,” says playwright Amanda Whittington, recalling her own experiences of playing football

Writer and co-lyricist Whittington says of her new play: “I was an 11-year-old footballer in the 1980s, the only girl who played in the boys’ village tournament, and I vividly remember being ‘advised’ to stop because it wasn’t appropriate. 

“I still feel the injustice and the sense of shame for wanting to do something I wasn’t meant to. 

“It brings joy to my heart to see football’s now the biggest team sport for girls in Britain.  I wanted to write about the battle the women’s game has fought to survive and prosper – and perhaps to tell the 11-year-old me she was right?”

Atalanta Forever is directed by Mikron artistic director Marianne McNamara, who is joined in the production team by composer and co-lyricist Kieran Buckeridge, musical director Rebekah Hughes and designer Celia Perkins. Casting will be announced in the coming months.

Explaining why Mikron chose to tackle the subject of the fight for women’s football, McNamara says: “Women’s football is making a comeback and not before time. We are thrilled to pay homage to the trailblazing Huddersfield women that paved the way against all odds.

“Just like the great game itself, this will be an action-packed play of two halves, full of live music, fun and laughter with no plans for extra time!”

Mikron’s 49th year of touring will open at the National Football Museum, Manchester, on April 18 and then travel nationally by road and canal on a vintage narrowboat until October 24.

Atalanta Forever will be touring alongside Poppy Hollman’s new play, A Dog’s Tale, a celebration of canines past and present that explores the enduring love between people and their dogs.

As ever, Mikron will be putting on their shows in “places that other theatre companies wouldn’t dream of”, whether a play about growing-your-own veg, presented in  allotments; one about bees performed next to hives; another about chips in a fish and chips restaurant, as well as plays about hostelling in YHA youth hostels and the RNLI at several lifeboat stations around the UK.

For more information and tour dates and locations for Atalanta Forever, go to mikron.org.uk/shows/atalanta-forever.