By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Adapted by Steven Canny and John Nicholson. Genesian Theatre, Sydney. Directed by Richard Cotter. 27 May – 17 June, 2023
Reviewed : June 2, 2023
Following the style of the oft’ staged The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridg’d and the popular adaptation of The 39 Steps, Steve Canny and John Nicholson condense Conan Doyle’s story to a comedy played by 3 actors. Richard Cotter cleverly leads the audience into the spirit of his production with his guileful choice of ‘mood’ music and wry program notes!
With the tone thus set, the curtains open to a sparsely set stage – some stairs, a free-standing door, an armchair! Here we meet Kate Easlea who, as the elementary Dr Watson, will guide the audience through the story and introduce Alyona Popova and Oliver Harcourt-Ham who play all the other characters that people Conan Doyle’s very convoluted plot.
As the perspicacious Sherlock Holmes, Popova – pipe in hand, cloak flowing and manner supercilious – sends Watson to Baskerville Hall to report on the strange death of Sir Charles Baskerville. This gives Popova the opportunity to play a bevy of other characters including the Barrymores (both husband and wife), the retainers at Baskerville Hall, the Stapletons (brother and sister) and an odd man hiding in the marsh, who is really Holmes in disguise.
Harcourt-Ham plays the Baskervilles – both Charles and Henry – making some very quick, complicated, and sometimes revealing costume changes, one of which occurs in a sauna where Harcourt-Ham and Easlea repeat a carefully timed gag that is best seen rather than described! Suffice to say the audience finds it hilarious! In another Popova and Harcourt-Ham perform a tango that is hardly Conan Doyle but certainly lifts the tenor of the tale.
Cotter has ensured the production uses the staging ‘tools’ that make this form of theatre effective. The props – including the door, the aforesaid sauna, a bed head, a fireplace and the grim mire that surrounds Baskerville Hall – are all on wheels. Manipulating them on and off the stage on and off the stage becomes part of the comedy.
As do some of the costume changes. Harcourt-Ham handles his with coy, expressive appeals to the sympathy of the audience! Popova manages hers with the same sort of aplomb with which she changes her characters. Her comic timing is excellent – and Cotter ensures he makes the most of her talent to push the pace and cheekiness of this irreverent adaptation.
Animals feature by sound rather than sight in this production. The howl of the hound, of course, pervades the action! Other animals whose voices haunt the mirey moor are deftly dealt with by Easlea’s Watson, a revolver and careful timing by Amy Roberts operating sound effects – and lighting. Roberts also gives ‘voice’ to the live lamb and cow which Harcourt-Ham, as a rustic peasant, shoulders villainously in a hessian bag.
Cotter’s approach to the production extends the commedia conventions suggested by Canny and Nicholson’s script – masks, walks, stances, voices, accents, comic routines, a love story, even a dance! He directs his cast to achieve all of that at a pace that sustains the comedy as well as the progressing the plot. A double whammy which they attack diligently.