This is extremely silly. And yet, somehow, quite poignant. With three actors playing 15 parts, some degree of silliness is inevitable, and it’s exploited mercilessly during this production of The Hound of the Baskervilles.
From the beginning, we are led astray, and I found myself thinking, ‘oh, it’s going to be one of those, is it?’ But it turned out to be a bit more than that.
In a similar genre to The 39 Steps and The Play That Goes Wrong, the actors Polly Lister, Reuben Johnson and Simon Kane essay many parts, silly costumes, ridiculously quick changes and some excellent sight gags, which is the technical term for a visual joke. As an acting job, that’s exactly what this is, a highly technical exercise in which Stanislavsky’s character analysis counts for nothing. Each line requires you to be in the right place and looking in the right direction with the right expression and gesture so that, bang, the other person gets the laugh. It’s a machine. Lotte Wakeham must have directed with an engineer’s eye and an iron hand.
But the danger with a machine is that it appears mechanical. Audiences must still care about the story. It’s not enough that we laugh at the tricks and preposterous characters because there’s a real danger that story becomes lost in the style. Luckily, this production avoids the traps. It tells the story efficiently and engages you emotionally despite yourself. I know this because even I, a jaded old theatre hack, still turned my head to look for the terrifying hound at the crucial moment, even though I knew it was only a sound effect. In my defence, it was a good sound effect.
Lister and Johnson have most of the fun with Lister’s goggle-eyed yokel nearly stealing the show. Johnson’s Cecile comes a close second and the developing love affair between Lister’s Sir Henry Baskerville and Cecile cuts through the action and is entirely believable. Kane gives us Watson, around whom everything revolves, but he is by no means a stooge, especially when he gets a revolver.
This was my first outing post-lockdown to a socially distanced auditorium and to Bolton Octagon’s newly refurbished foyer and bars. Normally, these openings are done with lots of civic pomp and circumstance, but this one seems to have slipped under the radar. Gone is the little café that was a relic of the 60s and in its place stands a modern, well-appointed café, albeit with a similar menu to before. The toilets are much improved, and I understand backstage is now fully accessible.
As for COVID-19 safety, about a third of the seats were occupied, which is full capacity under the current rules. We were also asked to wear our masks throughout the performance, in the bars, while leaving the auditorium during the interval and at the end – and it was all carefully managed to maintain social distancing. I read recently that when audiences are closely packed together a sort of emotional transference takes place, our heart rates fall into line and the laughter is infectious. It must be doubly hard to play this sort of piece to a socially distanced crowd.
Even so, if you know the story and you like this sort of thing, then this is a retelling well worth the trip. And if you don’t know the story? Well, then you’ll enjoy it even more.
By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor
All images by Pamela Raith Photography
The Hound of the Baskervilles is on at Bolton Octagon until August 17, 2021. For more information or to book tickets, click here.