mon 14/10/2019

The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, Duchess Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, Duchess Theatre

The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, Duchess Theatre

As great a mystery as Holmes ever faced, Jeremy Paul's elegant play defies explanation

Peter Egan's Holmes is as dynamically mercurial as one could wishPaul Toeman

How do you construct a compelling play about the greatest of fictional detectives without either mystery or reveal? The cryptic answer, in the form of Jeremy Paul’s 1988 theatrical two-hander The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, is far from elementary.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Laudanum-quaffing, woman-hating logician Sherlock Holmes is surely the original for every heroic-cop-with-troubled-home-life that has since washed up in our fiction with whisky on his breath and murder on his mind. Clad in a paisley dressing gown, violin in hand, Holmes might colour proceedings with an inscrutable elegance, yet the flawed reality of the man himself seeps out from between every line of Conan Doyle’s stories.

This latest take on the Holmes legend strips the detective of both mystery and adversary, instead turning the questions and conundrums inward. Holmes’ uneasy relationship with his own intelligence, and that with the two emotional poles of his life – closest collaborator Watson and arch-nemesis Moriarty – come in for close scrutiny, as the play moves from whimsical period nostalgia to disturbing psychodrama with convincing ease.

There are shifts in tone and vocabulary that jar, or at any rate fail to sit comfortably with the Holmes of fiction

That it achieves all this without much by way of plot or narrative scaffolding is truly remarkable. The action (if so it may be called) is an efficient mixture of narration and direct action; the two characters move from flashback recollections, with the usual self-conscious corrections and asides, to more immediate dramatic episodes. Chief among these is a vivid recreation of the famous incident at the Reichenbach Falls, a miracle of design that leaves one particular tableau framed in the mind for hours after.

Simon Higlett’s set is gloriously and evocatively sprawling. Framed by a spiral staircase and dusty gallery (which doubles up as London’s foggy, smoky rooftops), 221B Baker Street is the ultimate bachelor pad, complete with crushed velvet chaise longue, damask curtains, scattered piles of books, and both a sabre and rifle mounted conspicuously on the walls: authentic, yet surprisingly adaptable.

Weaving quotations and dialogue from Conan Doyle’s original in amongst newly constructed passages, Jeremy Paul’s script is at times a little uneven. There are shifts in tone and vocabulary that jar, or at any rate fail to sit comfortably with the Holmes of fiction. Given the author’s notoriously laissez-faire attitude towards his imitators – “Marry him or murder him or do what you like with him” – such liberties are understandable but not perhaps strictly necessary, framed as they are here by no particular interpretational intent.

Reprising their roles from the recent The Hound of the Baskervilles are Peter Egan (Holmes) and Robert Daws (Watson). It’s a partnership whose trust and familiarity are potent, and though Egan physically lacks the saturnine menace of a Jeremy Brett or Basil Rathbone, Daws (complete with ex-military moustache) cuts a comfortingly solid figure as Watson. Egan’s Holmes, alternating “between cocaine and ambition”, is as dynamically mercurial as one could hope, and his spiralling, compulsive self-examination sits well against the achingly restrained emotion and unfussy directness of Daws’ Watson.

At the hollow core of the play is the figure of Moriarty – Holmes’ ultimate adversary. Without wishing to reveal the play’s “secret”, Paul exposes the relationship between detective and criminal as far more contingent than we might have suspected, making an elegant psychological case for a bizarrely co-dependent trio, in which the absence of Moriarty would nullify the existence of Holmes himself.

The Secret of Sherlock Holmes touches on some big questions, and if it leaves most of these tantalisingly undeveloped, it is with the deliberate artistry of a skilled storyteller. The greatest mystery currently on offer at the Duchess Theatre is why this bizarre little play works as well as it does. I was by turns entertained, amused and confounded, yet I’d defy even Holmes himself to explain why.

The recreation of the Reichenbach Falls is a miracle of design that leaves one particular tableau framed in the mind for hours after

Share this article

Comments

I am a Sherlock Holmes fan and i enjoy reading the stories and wastch the late great Peter Cushing playing this awesome detective with Sir Christopher Lee playing Mycroft, i also like the late Jeremy Brett, there isn't many actors play Sherlock very good.I wish i could be near the Shakespeare theatre i would go and see the performances of Peter Egan's Sherlock Holmes to me this is great british heritage that needs more of.I hope Peter Egan gets a great sellout on his performances.

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters

Advertising feature

★★★★★

A compulsive, involving, emotionally stirring evening – theatre’s answer to a page-turner.
The Observer, Kate Kellaway

 

Direct from a sold-out season at Kiln Theatre the five star, hit play, The Son, is now playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre for a strictly limited season.

 

★★★★★

This final part of Florian Zeller’s trilogy is the most powerful of all.
The Times, Ann Treneman

 

Written by the internationally acclaimed Florian Zeller (The Father, The Mother), lauded by The Guardian as ‘the most exciting playwright of our time’, The Son is directed by the award-winning Michael Longhurst.

 

Book by 30 September and get tickets from £15*
with no booking fee.