I'm not certain just how many people still read the original Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Of course there are the devotees – the Sherlockians and the Holmsians – who will obviously flock to this show in droves in order to argue at their fan club meetings for decades to come about whether the 'secret' as revealed in this show is true, false or just a large dollop of Victorian tripe. At least the Holmes brand still seems to have enormous pulling power given the appearance of recent films and the fact that a new BBC TV series is about to burst into our living rooms. Holmes's appeal lies not just in the fact that he's an amazingly gifted detective. He's actually a rather odd character who, for example, indulges in drug-taking to while away the hours when he's not hunting-down nasty criminal types.
The 'Secret 'unfolds on a single set, and is a two-hander – just Watson and Holmes in evidence with not even a walk-on part for housekeeper Mrs Hudson and her teapot, or a quick contretemps with Inspector Lestrade. The shadowy figure of the evil Professor Moriarty does appear fleetingly.
The original stories were actually narrated by Holmes's sidekick Dr Watson, and the pattern is repeated here. Watson fills us in on how the two of them met and how they came to live together at arguably the most famous address in London – 221b Baker Street. And we move quickly on to the incident at the Reichenbach Falls where Holmes was supposed to meet a watery end at the hands of his nemesis, Moriarty.
Robert Daws makes a very fine Watson. Endearing, stable and loyal with a common sense approach to life, he's obviously devoted to Holmes and there's a real sense of a very deep friendship between them. However, Daws' Watson also has a mind of his own and he's more than capable of standing up to the master detective when required. Peter Egan follows in the footsteps of many great actors – the likes of Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett - who have made the role of Holmes their own, and that's a tough act for any actor to follow. Egan's Holmes has quite a dark side, though I don't think he's as arrogant or overbearing as we've seen from other actors. Nevertheless, he's authoritative and astute, though slightly fey on occasions. I doubt that Peter Egan's performance will rival the likes of Rathbone or Brett, but it's convincing and works well with Robert Daws' excellent Watson.
Simon Higlet's set is divided into two levels – the living room at 221b on the lower level and an upper gallery that overlooks the street and doubles as the infamous Reichenbach Falls. The back of the set has large chimneys surrounding a replica of a famous Victorian cartoon by Gustav Doré entitled 'Over London By Rail' which is a nice touch of authenticity. However, the smaller chimneys near the front of the set didn't add what I presume was supposed to be perspective. In fact, they looked like remnants from a dolls' house. That aspect aside, the living room at 221b is faithful to the stories, including a table with Holmes's chemistry apparatus. And Matthew Bugg's eerily atmospheric music sets the appropriate tone, even if it was a little loud at times.
Apart from a rather irritating and noisy juvenile sitting in the stalls, the audience seemed more or less captivated, and the show certainly held their attention for the duration. However, the 'secret' which is delivered in the second half isn't exactly monumentally shocking or mind-blowing. I'd hoped there was going to be some staggering revelation, for example that Holmes and Watson had married in secret or something of that kind. But not so. Though I won't spoil the concept by revealing the 'secret' I suspect it will mean more to devotees than it will to those with less enthusiasm for or knowledge of the great detective. On the whole it's inoffensively charming and endearing, even if it's relatively undemanding.
"It all begins promisingly enough...Gradually however...With only Holmes and Watson on stage, how on earth is there going to be a proper mystery to investigate?...predictable and entirely unpersuasive."
Charles Spencer for Daily Telegraph
"Uneven two-hander...A passable, if deerstalker-free, couple of hours."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard
"Decent and solid, with worthy performances...the story itself never really ignites"
Ben Dowell for The Stage
External links to full reviews from popular press