Every generation, it seems, has its own Sherlock Holmes. For today’s app-happy screen-based oiks, it’s Benedict Cumberbatch with his ever-unpeeling meta narratives and seemingly bottomless budgets. For my early-80s lot – the noblest of the generations – it’s either Jeremy Brett or Basil Rathbone depending on whether you preferred the vulgar pleasures of ITV or the rarefied atmosphere of BBC Two where they showed classic black-and-white reruns in the Friday post-Grange Hill slot.
But for Liverpool Playhouse there’s a new version of the master detective in town, freshly scrubbed for the non-panto Christmas show generation. Here it’s the actor Jay Taylor with an efficient portrayal of Conan Doyle’s popular character. He takes the lead in the UK premiere of Ken Ludwig’s comedy Baskerville, directed by Loveday Ingram.
The show is one of those knowing knockabout romps that can’t resist sending up the source material as it powers through what is a pretty familiar plot. The template is Patrick Barlow’s breathlessly funny take on The 39 Steps (that show filled this same festive slot at the Playhouse in 2009), but while the John Buchan thriller genuinely packed a laugh-a-minute into its whirlwind storytelling, Baskerville only rarely delivers the guffaws it seems to be striving for.
That isn’t to say the show isn’t plenty of fun. Sometimes it’s a treat to just sit back and enjoy something silly up on stage, and there are lots of clever quick changes and some fast-paced doubling up that keep the chuckles coming. Even better are the show’s gothic atmospherics, with Simon Daw’s set, Tim Lutkin’s lighting and George Dennis’s sound effects creating real chills and foreboding.
However, given the effectiveness of much of this unsettling scene-setting, it seems a shame that the production subverts it by imposing a pretend amateurishness – malfunctioning moustaches, improperly placed props – that often irritates rather than amuses. And while the script does a good job of adapting the most famous of Holmes and Watson’s adventures, it is surprisingly light on actual laughs. There are precious few good verbal gags but lots of reliance on comedy foreign accents and speech impediments. A couple of the more ‘Allo ‘Allo-ish sequences are simply embarrassing.
Fortunately, the cast are a capable bunch, and along with Taylor’s snappy, smart Sherlock, there’s a dependable Doctor Watson from Patrick Robinson. With just three additional cast members playing 30-plus parts, the show has fun moving them in and out of scenes, swooping off stage as one character before leaping back on in another role. Ryan Pope, credited as plain old ‘Actor One’ in the programme, demonstrates a particularly deft grasp of the comic arts.
Things crank up a notch in the second half, and with the extra pace come a few heartier chortles, but by the end I couldn’t help thinking it was a shame the show wasn’t played straight. The superb video projections, lighting tricks and sound effects are out of kilter with the comic amateurishness, and it would be great to put their undoubted power to better use. Not that Ludwig’s script is meant to be anything other than a big daft bundle of jolly nonsense, but even silliness demands internal logic if it is to really bring the house down.
Speaking of which, there’s a satisfying twist to the tale that had me leaving the Playhouse with a smile on my face regardless of my doubts. But while Baskerville is a fun night out if pantomime isn’t your bag, and its slavering jaws do sometimes cast a genuinely steely glint, ultimately this hound turns out to be a disappointingly tame sort of beast.
Photos by Ellie Kurttz
Baskerville runs at Liverpool Playhouse until January 13, 2018. For more information, visit the website.