28 March 2014

Theatrical Delights: Off-West end Holmesian theatre adaptation of A Study in Scarlet continues the game with grace

A light fog settles on Brixton Hill Road as I walk along the pavement towards home. I had just come back from Brixton Road, Baker Street, and Utah--in 1881.

An adaptation of the first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet from Tacit Theatre at the Southwark Playhouse, could go anywhere. Sitting in the comfy, worn, brown couches I sit with a couple friends relaxing, I wonder how this small, south London theatre will stage the consulting detective. As with my previous experience in the realm of small, independent theatres there was no need to be concerned. Conan Doyle's first Holmes' story was adapted and with creativity, originality, and reverence for the story, while the performances were new and familiar at the same time. Holmes and Watson, once again, leapt off the page in true theatrical force with amazing staging, sound, story, and performances.

When I walk into the the small theatre with general seating, I could have been walking into 221B itself. Holmes and Watson's chairs were neatly placed next to each other with proper places for pipes, chemistry experiments, violins and a spattering of the appropriate wall coverings.
221B in the Southwark Playhouse
The intimate setting gives a hint as to how the audience will be able to feel perfectly involved with what is going on in the story whether we are in the barren Utah or Lauriston Gardens. The performers are so close one can be often sitting right next to them, or inches away as Watson gazed out of the windows contemplating his new-found flatmate's powers of deduction. The sound?  Music, with musical instruments played by all the actors! Yes, almost every actor was also a musician.  Holmes, of course, played a mean violin along with Mrs. Hudson.  Jefferson Hope on a stringed instrument, Lestrade on a clarinet, and various other musical instruments rounding out the original musical score. A score that gives both a soundtrack to the play, but also adds the right amount of ambiance sound at the ideal time.

Story.  Adapting a story needs to be done with as much care and thought as writing an original piece. As I read A Study in Scarlet for the first time, I found myself enthralled at the story happening at Baker Street and Lauriston Gardens, but had a hard time with the chunk that took place in the wilds of the American West.  The adapters for this version of Conan Doyle's story, Greg Freeman and Lila Whelan, took the stories' "American experience" and English bits and intertwined them allowing the action in America to guide the story in London.
Staging of 221B
Finally--performance.  The small seven-player ensemble of this piece made 14 different characters and various stage changes seem easy.  With many actors playing multiple roles and going from American accents to British ones, from Holmes and Watson to Lestrade and Gregson, Conan Doyle's characters kept their original characterisation while allowing their humour or amazement and growing comaraderie to shine in the forefront.   A younger Holmes and Watson (played by actors Philip Benjamin and Edward Cartwright, respectively) captured the individual, and well-recognised, traits needed to portray the pair--something that didn't really surprise me after learning that Benjamin had a scene with Sherlock in series one and Cartwright played the detective himself in a documentary on the forensic specialties of Holmes.  Conan Doyle's representatives of Scotland Yard in London as well as the villans in America were portrayed with two other actors with fun and reverance, and even the role of Jefferson Hope, the executor of revenge, was portrayed by the same performer who was the local constable.

With the first adventure complete, we see Holmes and Watson sitting in Baker Street when the latter contemplates the end of the adventure;  Holmes, all knowing, tells him that it's not the end, but only the beginning!

I have seem many wonderful plays in the big theatres of the West-End, but the discovery of the smaller, independent theatres in the north and south of town has been a delight.  Two plays in small theatres (yes, both with Holmesian stories) allows the audience to  experience theatre outside of assigned seating; it allows one to sit right in Baker Street and join Holmes and Watson on their adventure as opposed to on the fringe.  I left the theatre with a high leaving me wanting to talk more about the play, the story, the detective, not wanting to return to the 21st Century for the moment.