The Hound of the Baskervilles (Abney Park Cemetery)

The Hound of the Baskervilles (Abney Park Cemetery, until September 29th)

⭐⭐⭐⭐

A wonderfully atmospheric and well-adapted new version of the classic The Hound of the Baskervilles proves that there’s no plays like Holmes when it comes to murder mysteries.

“One false step means certain death to man or beast – so tread carefully!” The warning given by one of the characters in the production could hardly be more appropriate for the audience who walk around Abner Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington as night falls and the wind whispers through the trees in this clever and engaging promenade version from the 09 Lives company.

The smart adaptation sticks remarkably close to the original story, with even some of the lesser plot points included in well-written and delivered narration.

Director Lil Warren avoids tiresome clichés (there’s not a deerstalker in sight and no whiff of “Elementary, my dear Watson!”) and creates a thrilling reworking of the 1901 detective story with a freshness and sense of fun which would surely delight Conan Doyle himself. While other versions have gone heavy on the comedy, this production – while finding plenty of humour (there’s a neat tribute to silent movies in one scene, for instance) – is never silly and takes it all pretty seriously, even when there is a distinct wink and a nod in the proceedings.

Such is the ability of the actors that it’s easy to overlook the fact that there are only six of them playing all the parts. In a couple of cases there is a genuine murmur of surprise from the audience when they cotton on to the fact that the performer who disappeared down one twilit track has reappeared in another guise only seconds later. Ah, the theatrical magic of a pair of glasses or well-applied facial hair!

It’s a good notion to have a sedate Conan Doyle (Angus Chisholm) narrate the story in each scene and lead the way in the movement around the park, as it leaves the other actors free to concentrate on the drama without having to worry about promenading practicalities (he is assisted in this by a lamp-bearing “Baker Street Irregular”). Chisholm gets the measure of the writer, who had an interest in the magical and mysterious, and there’s a twinkle in his eye when he declares “the game’s afoot!” to send us off at the start.

Giorgio Galassi is fantastic casting as Holmes, giving the well-known character a completely original take without feeling the need to draw any inspiration from the likes of Jeremy Brett, Basil Rathbone, or Benedict Cumberbatch. Dynamic and all-knowing, his is an arrogant and irritating consulting detective showing little patience with his long-suffering companion. The hint of the actor’s Italian heritage adds a splendid touch of fiery Latin temperament to this most British of fictional creations.

Despite being the most famous – and oft-produced – Sherlock Holmes adventure the sleuth himself vanishes for the central part of the narrative, so Galassi also dons an outrageous moustache to play the Baskerville butler Barrymore.

Holmes’ absence means a lot hangs on Dr Watson and Gary Cain also resists copying others who have played the part of the diarist and companion. Instead we are shown a loyal sidekick who is not treated entirely kindly by his eccentric friend and who has more than a mind of his own.

Dan de la Motte is a suitably stiff upper lipped Mortimer but has some fun with the devious naturalist Stapleton who hides his own family secrets. The audience is close enough to see his manic twitches of gleeful villainy and the sight of him skipping into the trees wielding a green butterfly net has a satisfying Hitchcockian air of pure malevolence.

Andrew Phipps is a jovial Sir Henry Baskerville, whose family appears to be cursed by the legend of the diabolical hound. In the original novel Henry isn’t that well developed, rather he provides the excuse for the story to happen in the first place. Phipps fleshes out the character by giving him courage and an air of the romantic.

Playing the two female roles is Sarah Warren – founder and artistic director of 09 Lives – who gives some welcome feminine strength to the feisty Beryl Stapleton and a sense of duty to the unfortunate Mrs Barrymore, respectable and emotional as she tries to hide her own secrets.

The piece is completed by its creepy sound design (Yvonne Gilbert), with a convincing hound occasionally heard howling in the trees, even after the play has ended and the audience is being escorted to the exit. SLAY’s installation design allows us to be transported effortlessly from Baker Street to Baskerville Hall (superb use of the beautiful old chapel), Merripit House, Grimpen Mire and other locations in the Dartmoor setting, with each location perfectly chosen and never too far away from the previous scene. We even glimpse two fierce red eyes of the hound peering through a Devon fog.

While always ensuring that this Hound doesn’t descend into farce it is patently clear that the cast are loving every minute, enjoying the proximity of the audience (there were around 30 of us on first night, which is just about right, allowing everybody to see and feel a part of what is taking place) and recognising that they are delivering a cracking yarn.

This Hound of the Baskervilles is a well-produced treat, just the right length at 90 minutes, and is certainly one of the finest promenade productions to be seen for some time.

David Guest

A version of this review originally appeared on The Spy in the Stalls http://www.thespyinthestalls.com/

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