Theatre Review – “Sherlock Holmes: The Best Kept Secret” (National Tour – Opera House, Manchester (29th June 2013))

As part of my birthday present haul last month, I managed to get tickets for the latest stage incarnation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation on the last day of the Manchester leg of its UK tour.

The setting for this story is two years after the events of “The Final Problem” where Holmes and Moriarty clashed at the Reichenbach Falls.  With the lack of a challenge to stimulate him, Holmes has become a broken man, in all extents.  He refuses to take on cases, is bankrupt and is selling his version of his investigations to the gutter press.  But Holmes is brought back into “The Game” when his brother, Mycroft, is charged with treason.  With the threat of execution literally hanging over his brother’s head, Holmes, along with his faithful friend Watson and the only woman ever to have bested him, Irene Adler, battle the forces that seek Mycroft’s death and the demons that could swing Holmes from genius to madness.

I have been a fan of the Holmes stories since watching the Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of the role in the 1980’s and 1990’s, in fact “The Final Problem” has been and remains to be one of my favourite stories.  So, it was interesting to see this interpretation of what happened after what, after “The Hound Of The Baskervilles”, is probably Holmes’s most famous case.

The script by Mark Catley and direction by Nikolai Foster (“The Diary Of Anne Frank” 2012 UK National Tour) draws the audience in with a combination of taking the well known fixtures and fittings of the Holmes mythos, such as the Holmes/Watson dynamic, Holmes’s drug use and his need for mental stimulation and the thrill of the hunt, and mixes it with a look into Holmes’s pysche and a good dollop of humour (including a nod to a continuing joke on the “Sherlock” series).  The core story of Holmes’s investigation into his brother’s arrest enables the play to explore a new side to the Holmes character, one where we see a glimpse into the torture of the character’s need to keep his mind ticking like a machine.

The cast is small, but works well given the intimate nature of the core storyline.

When I found out that Jason Durr, who portrayed the lead role of Mike Bradley in the long running series “Heartbeat”, was to portray Holmes, I must admit to having some doubts.  However, these were quickly dispelled with his performance that draws on the man of action version of Holmes as portrayed by Robert Downey Jr. in so much that he builds humour into the Holmes portrayal whilst maintaining the spirit of the Holmes character.  That said, he also adds a vulnerability to Holmes which imbues the character with a side that is rarely seen – even in the Brett incarnation – which adds to the feeling that Durr’s Holmes could be the one who is defeated through the course of the story.

Throughout the story, Holmes is assisted by the duo of Dr Watson, as portrayed by Andrew Hall (from the 1970’s TV series “Butterflies” and, more recently, in “Coronation Street”), and the ever-mysterious Irene Adler, as portrayed by Tanya Franks (who was recently in ITV’s hit series “Broadchurch” appearing as DS Miller’s sister).

Hall portrays Watson as the stoic friend that we have come to associate with the various incarnations of Watson.  That said, he never makes Watson look like a fool or buffoon whilst maintaining that mental step behind Holmes and is the man who is quick to protect his friend physically as well as in his role as a physician in the mould of Jude Law’s or Martin Freeman’s interpretation of the role.

Ms Franks adds a new depth to the role of Irene Adler by taking her away from the more well know portrayals of the perpetual con artist as portrayed by Rachel McAdams in the Guy Ritchie films or the dominatrix as portrayed by Lara Pulver in “Sherlock”.  This version of the character is one who looks like she could have a relationship with Holmes, but given her background you have the nagging doubt that she could betray as easily as care for him.

Holmes’s brother, Mycroft, is portrayed by Adrian Lukis, who was a regular in the 1990’s medical series “Peak Practice” and more recently appeared in the austerity Olympic drama “Bert and Dickie” starring Matt Smith.  Lukis portrays Mycroft as somebody who is in intellectual competition with his younger sibling, but whereas the portrayals by the likes of  Mark Gatiss show Mycroft as a cool, calculating figure in the shadows of the British Government or Stephen Fry and Charles Gray is that of an expositionary character, this Mycroft appears to be almost as in danger of spinning into insanity as Sherlock.

We also have a Lestrade in this play, portrayed by Victor Maguire (“Bread”, “Goodnight Sweetheart” and “The Woman In Black”).  Whereas Lestrade is often seen as a man who, sometimes reluctantly, seeks Holmes’s help to crack an unsolvable case, Maguire’s Lestrade is very much in opposition to Holmes. threatening to arrest him if he continues his investigation and delights in the fact that he has been able to do his job for two years without the need to ask for Holmes’s assistance.

Additional cast members include Andrew Langtree as the journalist and Kerry Peers (who portrayed Mrs Frank in last year’s touring production of “The Diary of Anne Frank”) as Mycroft’s housekeeper, Mrs Peasgoode.

Whilst the story can’t be seen as canonical in nature, due to the fact that Holmes returned in the story “The Empty House” which led on to his continuing investigations, it does have the essence of Conan Doyle’s original work whilst adding in new elements to freshen up the mythos.

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