Review by Barry Lenny

With the Adelaide Festival and Fringe over and done with for another year, local companies are beginning their seasons, and the Adelaide Repertory Theatre Society is starting with Baskerville – A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, a comedy written by Tony Award-winning American playwright, Ken Ludwig, and directed by Geoff Brittain, very based on the 1902 novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Best known for his farces, this work from Ludwig is in the style of a melodrama.

Brittain has taken no chances, assembling a group of experienced performers. Andrew Horwood plays Sherlock Holmes and Sam Wiseman plays his friend and biographer, Doctor John Watson. Over the course of the play, the other three of the five cast members, Anita Zamberlan Canala, Thomas Midena, and Kim Clark, are required to play close to forty characters. This involves many comical costume changes, a plethora of ridiculous and inconsistent accents, many wigs and beards, and more red herrings than Billingsgate fish market.

Conan Doyle’s story is all there, and much of the dialogue is, in fact, taken straight from the pages of the novel. It is a strange mix, as Holmes is played mostly straight, with the occasional tongue in cheek, and Watson also has only a degree of comedy in the role. Horwood and Wiseman do, however, create very believable characters, capturing the essential elements of the famous consulting detective and his invaluable assistant. It is left to the other three actors to create the zaniest collection of other characters, who get the lion’s share of the comedy. I say characters, but what I really mean is hilariously way over-the-top caricatures.

A visitor to 221b Baker Street, in the absence of the occupants, has left behind his cane. Handed it by Mrs.Hudson (Anita Zamberlan Canala), Watson applies Holmes’s method to deduce the characteristics of the owner, and gets it completely wrong. The laughs start here.

Sir Charles Baskerville has died of a heart attack under strange circumstances. His friend and neighbour, Doctor Mortimer (Thomas Midena), has consulted Holmes, suspecting that the death was not due to natural causes, worried for the life of the heir to the estate, and narrating the tale of a monstrous, inhuman hound that killed the first of the line of Baskervilles, Sir Hugo, an evil, dissolute man. Sir Henry Baskerville (Kim Clark) has arrived from America to claim his inheritance. They say that everything is bigger in Texas, and that certainly goes for Sir Henry‘s Stetson hat.

As the hotel’s Castillian desk clerk, Thomas Midena channels Andrew Sachs, as Manuel, complete with the theme music from Fawlty Towers, and his Barrymore could easily pass for the obsequious Dickensian character Uriah Heep, as portrayed by Roland Young in the 1937 film adaptation of the book, David Copperfield, and then Midena flounces around the stage waving a large net as the unsuccessful butterfly hunter, Stapleton.

Anita Zamberlan Canala begins as Mrs. Hudson before moving on to more bizarre characters, including an hilarious German maid with an accent that has to be heard to be believed, the typist, Laura Lyons, and the lively love interest, Beryl Stapleton, as well as Cartwright, an inquisitive youngster employed by Holmes to seek out information.

Kim Clark plays all of the Baskervilles, Hugo, Charles, and Henry, and a highly inappropriate, politically incorrect Inspector Lestrade, as well as Bradley, an unhygienic tobacconist. Sir Henry, being a major character, and onstage much of the time, restricts the number of other roles Clark can cover for which, watching the other two running themselves ragged, he should be thankful.
All ends well, of course, with the hound dealt with, the murderer coming to a sticky end in the bog, and Sir Henry and Miss Beryl Stapleton together at last, leaving Holmes and Watson ready to move onto their next adventure.

The five performers work hard in their roles, and work very well together as an ensemble, and I suspect that they might just be having even more fun onstage than those of us seated in the auditorium.

A great deal of the comedy is visual, or provided by sound effects and music. Composer/musician, Michael Diakomichalis, uses electronically synthesised sounds, digitally recorded instruments, and even plays a Theremin, down in the orchestra pit. There is even a nod to Monty Python’s Holy Grail film, with the sound of hooves made by half cocoanuts clapped together as a horse crosses the stage.

Gillian Cordell’s many costumes, and the necessary quick changes, occasionally onstage, add a few more laughs, along with some dodgy wigs and facial hairpieces, organised by Kathryn Stevens.

Brittain also designed the set. There are a few trucked pieces, such as the room at Baker Street and huts on the moor, with smaller units, such as a desk for the hotel, and a bed, but the major part of creating the many scenes is by the use of projected images on the backdrop. Scenic artists, Lilita Daenke and Kathy Wurst are responsible for all of that. Richard Parkhill’s atmospheric lighting, and the occasional use of smoke, adds to the overall effect.

There were a few hiccups in lines, but nothing major, and there were times when more pace would have been an advantage, but it was opening night, and nerves can get in the way. That should all sort itself out in the next performance or two.

It is a familiar story, or it certainly should be, that has been given a comic twist and deliberately hammed up, providing plenty of laughs for the audience. Treat yourself to a night out.

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