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.
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.
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.
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.
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