When he wasn't playing his Stradivarius, messing about with his chemistry apparatus, injecting himself with cocaine, or stuffing his face at top-notch restaurant Simpsons-in-the-Strand, ace consulting detective Sherlock Holmes faced numerous devilish adversaries - thanks to the mind of his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. One of those adversaries still has enough of a scary reputation to raise a few shrieks or terror - well, maybe a few whimpers these days - and that is the spectral 'Hound of the Baskervilles'.
The latest in a long line of revivals and spoofs inspired by Conan Doyle's story (which appeared serialised in the Strand Magazine in 1901 and 1902) is created here by a cast of just 3, enough you'd think to do the main characters: Holmes, his trusty, but often bemused medical sidekick Watson, and the demonic hound itself. But not so. Changing costumes in the time it takes the horrible hound to swallow a passing pheasant, they cover 20 characters or so, and even manage to squeeze in a lightening recap of the entire first half to refresh our memories after the interval.
Adapted and enacted by theatre company Peepolykus (pronounced 'people like us') this version of the 'Hound of the Baskervilles', though reasonably faithful to Conan Doyle's plot, exploits characters and settings unmercifully in an absurd but highly amusing pantomime-like spoof that borders on the near-ludicrous.
The Baskerville Family live on the edge of Dartmoor in England's West Country. But they are plagued by a curse in the form of a ghostly hound which attacks the head of the family at irregular regular intervals. When we join the story, Sir Charles Baskerville meets his nemesis, and dies in terror. So, when Sir Henry Baskerville arrives from Canada to claim his birthright, Sherlock Holmes is appointed to fend off the curse and imminent death. But Holmes sends Watson on to Dartmoor - armed with his faithful army revolver - to protect Sir Henry and unravel the mystery. During what follows, we meet an assortment of characters and all is not as it might seem on the moor where an untimely death is almost a foregone conclusion, given the proximity of the quicksands of Grimpen Myre, and the ever-present deadly hound.
Teaming a red deerstalker with his smoking jacket, Javier Marzan takes the role of Sherlock Holmes. Originally hailing from Spain, Marzan has (or is able to fein) a thick Spanish accent giving Holmes a uniquely peculiar characterisation that turns out to be a near stroke of genius. Marzan's 'Dago' Holmes - more defective than detective, one feels - does not suffer fools gladly, and endlessly taunts Watson's mindless fumblings, even though he describes Watson as his 'torch'. Marzan also takes on the roles of both of the Stapletons - a brother and sister who live near Baskerville Hall, leaving John Nicholson to cope admirably with the role of Watson, and Jason Thorpe as Sir Henry (and Sir Charles) Baskerville. It's a real team effort of the best kind, with all the cast turning in highly polished performances.
The most striking thing about the work of Peepolykus is their inventive use of sound effects and lighting. For example, we hear the gate of Baskerville Hall even though it's invisible, and when Sir Charles tries to speak, he's interrupted by the chance hoot of an owl. There's also good use of lighting – such as when Sir Charles is lighting his cigar. And the economical use of cheap and cheerful props, which relies on our imagination and well-planned business for effect, is equally inventive and astute. Excellent comic timing is also much in evidence, and the whole thing proceeds at a rattling pace that keeps the laughs coming thick and fast.
I think Conan Doyle might well have approved of this extremely silly (but kindly) spoof of his much-loved story and one of the world's best-known characters. After writing relatively few of the Holmes' stories, Doyle was eager to consign his popular sleuth to the literary dustbin, but was forced by huge public demand, matched by the considerable incentive of enormous wads of cash, to resurrect him. On the other hand, the more ardent Holmesians and Sherlockians around the world might not be quite so amused by this 'unauthorised' and irreverent revival.
Though the script never reaches the dizzy heights of comedic brilliance, the characterisations and inventive liberties taken with the plot are more than enough to make this version of 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' irresistibly entertaining.
What the popular press had to say.....
CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "There are a host of brilliant gags, and mime and physical theatre skills are much to the fore." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Peepolykus — pronounced as a hopeful People Like Us — is content to amuse, and to amuse with energy, skill and good nature...It’s always enjoyable watching actors do imaginative things with a minimum of props." KIERON QUIRKE for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "The laughs are here in force...Indubitably a good night out."