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 Wakeman’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.
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, Jack 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 Jack 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.”
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.
“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