by Meredith Jones Russell
In this post-Cumberbatch age, you can’t help but feel slightly sorry for any actor taking on the role of Sherlock Holmes. The BBC series has provided such a defining image of Holmes to a generation that one wonders why a company might take on another rehash of a Conan Doyle classic.
While Blackeyed Theatre’s production of The Sign of Four may never quite shift this unfavourable comparison, the same cannot be said of Luke Barton’s portrayal of the detective hero. His Sherlock is young, brilliant, dynamic and very likeable, even when self-medicating with cocaine out of frustration and boredom. Barton makes the character his own with charm and gusto.
Unfortunately, the play itself is something of a frustration. The plot of The Sign of Four is complex – hidden treasure from the Indian Rebellion of 1857 leading to intrigue and murder – and the small cast of six actors flitting between numerous roles are forced to provide a huge amount of exposition to keep everything moving. While they don’t miss a beat delivering reams of plot, the wordiness of writer/director Nick Lane’s script often inhibits the action and makes the story hard to follow.
A more creative take on the Holmes story is provided by Victoria Spearing’s set, which actors take apart and rearrange to create a wealth of locations, from the Lyceum to Indian temples. It’s a stunning creation that helps emphasise how much strength the play could derive from less telling and more showing, and the actors are at their best when climbing up into attics on large blocks, bumping through south London on a horse and carriage, or sailing along the Thames on a makeshift barge rather than when they are delivering line after line of dense plot.
It’s a very classic take on a very classic story, and the production doesn’t bring very much that is new. It’s an entertaining and faithful enough interpretation of an old tale, but a lack of imagination inhibits the derring-do of a talented cast.
Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four runs through 11 May.
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