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

What happens to a rake when he can’t rake anymore? Here is the answer…

Setting the record straight: Adrian Lukis as George Wickham 30 years after Pride And Prejudice in Being Mr Wickham

REVIEW: Adrian Lukis in Being Mr Wickham, Original Theatre Company, Haunted Season, York Theatre Royal, today at 2.30pm and 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

TWO years ago, 25 years on from filming the BBC adaptation of Pride And Prejudice, actor Adrian Lukis started thinking about still being Mr Wickham, having “defended his dubious reputation” for so long.

What would have become of Jane Austen’s Georgian rogue George, or “What happens to a rake when he can’t rake anymore,” as Lukis asked himself?

Harper Lee revisited the characters of To Kill A Mockingbird in Go Set A Watchman; Danny Boyle’s 2017 film T2: Trainspotting picked up the story of Mark Renton, Sick Boy and co 20 years on; in this instance, the writing falls to Lukis and Georgian storyteller Catherine Curzon.

Refracting Austen’s vilified character through their shared lens for a one-man character study set 30 years down the line of worn time, Lukis’s Wickham is now 60, still charming, with aching knees and wife Lydia waiting in the bedroom, as he tells his side of the story.

Lukis reimagined him living in reduced circumstances, having gambled his way through his £3,000 pay-off from Darcy, no longer reliant on his looks and his wits, having left behind the dissolute London life. Maybe he was residing in Yeovil, or maybe running a small business in Malmesbury, definitely he was looking out of the window for the tittle-tattle of life across the way, so he told Thursday’s audience in the Q&A after the 75-minute performance.

Wouldn’t you rather spend a night out with Mr Wickham than Mr Darcy, speculated Adrian Lukis in his post-show question-and-answer session

Lukis constructed an earlier version of this monologue but found his ageing Wickham too sleazy. Lockdown enabled him and Curzon to create Wickham mark two: a rake raking over the coals and setting the record straight. Actors must always empathise with whoever they play, runs the advice to those playing the villain of the piece, and Lukis warms to that task with relish as he reacquaints himself with “my old friend”.

Yes, Wickham was “a bit of player”, yes he behaved badly, even disgracefully on occasion, but as Lukis said afterwards, but wouldn’t you rather have a night out with gorgeous, affable George than Darcy?

Significantly, Lukis said he treated this Wickham as a new character when writing and playing him, rather than as the Austen rogue he played in Andrew Davies’s adaptation. What emerges is a story of loss, exits; his rueful reflections on Elizabeth Bennet, Darcy and Lord Byron; the blood, the smell, the gore, of the Waterloo battlefield. What has Wickham achieved at 60? He has survived, he says. He has survived, he repeated.

Being Mr Wickham is beautifully detailed, from the elaborate Georgian phrasing of Lukis and Curzon to Libby Watson’s faded drawing room design, to Guy Unsworth’s immaculately composed direction and Lukis’s eloquent, elegant performance.

Life with a scandalous scoundrel is never dull and it certainly still isn’t in Being Mr Wickham, even if the heat has gone out of the day and those knees are aching ever more.

One last story from the Q&A: when first meeting for filming, actress Susannah Harker (Jane Bennet) misheard Lukis, thinking he said he was the wig man and promptly asking him to make adjustments. No, he would be playing Mr Wickham, he corrected her, and he is still being Mr Wickham to charming effect all these years later.

Review by Charles Hutchinson

George Wickham, the survivor, in Adrian Lukis’s characterisation in Being Mr Wickham

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

Oh, the scandal! Adrian Lukis plays Pride And Prejudice’s Mr Wickham again, 30 years on from Jane Austen’s novel

Adrian Lukis: Being Mr Wickham again, 30 years on from Jane Austen’s novel

ADRIAN Lukis played George Wickham in the BBC’s television adaptation of Pride And Prejudice 26 years ago this very month.

Time, he says, to set the record straight about Jane Austen’s most charmingly roguish character in his one-man play Being Mr Wickham, co-written with Catherine Curzon.

This is the chance to discover the vilified Wickham’s version of some very famous literary events. Such as? What really happened with Darcy? What did he feel about Lizzie? What went on at Waterloo? Not to mention Byron.

Directed by Guy Unsworth and designed by Libby Watson, the Original Theatre Company’s 75-minute touring production visits York Theatre Royal from Thursday (14/10/2021) to Saturday.

From the company that brought Ben Brown’s political drama A Splinter Of Ice to the Theatre Royal in July comes Being Mr Wickham, wherein Lukis’s Mr Wickham is on the eve of his 60th birthday and wants to lift the sheets on exactly what happened 30 years on from where Jane Austen left him. 

“I’m thrilled to be reunited with my old friend, George Wickham,” says Lukis, who starred with Colin Firth’s headline-grabbing Mr Darcy in Andrew Davies’s adaptation of Austen’s 1813 novel.

 “Having spent years defending Wickham’s dubious reputation, I look forward to finally setting the record straight, with the assistance of the immensely talented Original Theatre Company.”

Rarely off the small screen, Lukis’s TV credits take in Channel 4’s Feel Good, the 2019 mini-series A Christmas Carol, Vera, Poldark, Bulletproof, Collateral, The Crown, Red Dwarf, Grantchester, Black Mirror, Blair Toast in Toast Of London, Downton Abbey, New Tricks and Death In Paradise.  

He also stars in the new Netflix series Anatomy Of A Scandal, set to be streamed this year, and has had film roles in Judy, Dolittle, City Slacker and Bertie & Dickie.

“I’ve made up stories based on the historical facts and imagined an entire life for Wickham above and beyond the book,” says Adrian Lukis

Now he is touring Being Mr Wickham after theatre parts inThe Price(Theatre Royal Bath), The Seagull (Chichester Festival Theatre/ National Theatre) and Versailles (Donmar Warehouse).

Here, Adrian Lukis gives CharlesHutchPress the inside track on Being Mr Wickham.

What inspired you to revisit the character of Mr Wickham?

“When I turned 60 a few years ago, I started to wonder what it would be like for a man such as Wickham, who has been a rake and a ne’er-do-well, surviving on his looks and his wits, to have to deal with getting older.

“I started to look at it with Catherine Curzon, who is an expert on the historical side of things, and read everything about Wickham and Pride And Prejudice I could get hold of. I found myself discovering how much I enjoyed the process of researching and writing. Once I started, it just went like a storm.”

Given that the details of Wickham’s life are sketchy in the novel, how did you fill in the blanks?

“Firstly, I looked at the way he is described. For example, Darcy says he has led a dissolute life in London, so I thought, ‘well what really happened?’. I’ve also made up stories based on the historical facts and imagined an entire life for him above and beyond the book.

“At one stage, he enters a private club and gets into a punch-up, but it’s based on a real place called Watier’s Club in St James’s [London]. I also wanted to explore things such as what he really thinks of Elizabeth Bennet; what he really thinks of Lydia. These questions were really interesting to me.”

” I was 17 I wrote my first play. At the time I thought I might be a playwright, so it’s nice I’m finally getting a chance to do it at 64,” says Adrian Lukis, actor and now writer too

Austen depicts him as such a rogue, was it therefore important to fight his corner in the play?

“Absolutely. My premise was that people don’t tend to see themselves through a bad lens, and there are always two sides to a story. I could have written him like Flashman – an out-and-out bounder who just doesn’t care – but something I took very strongly from the book was that Wickham is plausibly a nice man.

“He is always described as being charming and amiable, rather than someone who’s constantly plotting and twirling his moustache. He admits he does some bad things, but turns it on the audience and asks, ‘have you led a blameless life?’.

“Also, he makes the point that life would be very dull without any rogues. I’d much rather spend an evening with him than with Darcy!”

How would Wickham be thought of in today’s society?

“It’s an interesting question. He would probably be labelled in contemporary terminology a bit of a ‘player’, and I think we all know men like that, but you have to view him in the context of his time. In Austen’s day, men who were not the first son had to set their cap at a wealthy heiress.

“That was a social pressure that we don’t really have today, so for a man with looks and charm, like Wickham, it made sense to try his luck with women, rather than going into the clergy.

“It would certainly be different today, although I think we are living through a very moral period, much more so than when I was growing up in the 1970s. So perhaps he would still be considered a scoundrel.”

What are your memories of playing Wickham first time round? Did you have any idea that the BBC series would become such a phenomenon?

“No idea at all; I don’t think any of us did. We knew it was a big production, and I thought the script was terrific, but we had no inkling of whether it would be a success. In that sense it was just another job.

“We are living through a very moral period, much more so than when I was growing up in the 1970s,” says Adrian Lukis. “So perhaps Wickham would still be considered a scoundrel”

“I remember writing to Colin Firth shortly after it came out, when he’d gone off to do some filming in South America, and saying words to the effect of ‘you have no idea what’s going on back home, this series has gone through the roof and you’re famous’.

“That being said, a few weeks later we went for a pint together in London, and I thought we would get absolutely mobbed – Darcy and Wickham out together -but nobody recognised us!”

Were you always drawn to acting and what about writing?

“My father was in the Royal Marines and I was initially brought up in Australia, where I didn’t have much chance to try it out, but when I came to England in the 1960s and was sent to public school, suddenly theatre was available to me and it was like being struck by a thunderbolt.

“I fell in love with it. My whole life soon became about being in school productions and when I was 17 I wrote my first play. At the time I thought I might be a playwright, so it’s nice I’m finally getting a chance to do it at 64!”

While on the subject of writers, what might Jane Austen have made of your reimagining of George Wickham?

“That depends on how you view her politics. She has been called all sorts of things, from a radical feminist to a staunch Methodist, but I think it’s safer to assume she was something of a small ‘c’ conservative.

“So, she probably would have disapproved of Wickham and seen him as being a rather weak and vapid young man, but I hope if she were to see this production, she would say, ‘good for you, you haven’t consigned him to the scrapheap and have found mitigating factors for his behaviour’.

Original Theatre Company presents Being Mr Wickham, York Theatre Royal, Thursday to Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Thursday’s performance will be followed by a 15 to 20-minute question-and-answer session. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk