Guest review by Ross McGregor
The Brockley Jack annual Christmas show is the stuff of Fringe Legend. It sells out before it even opens, and the reasons for this incredible success are legion. The Brockley Jack is one of the most reputable and iconic venues in London, and it’s run by people who know what they’re doing and care passionately about the space. They pick good scripts, cast talented actors and produce the Christmas show themselves so audiences know it’s a sure thing. Added to this, the Jack does something other than panto – so it’s great marketing for those who are Cinderella-ed out.
This year’s offering is a comedic pastiche of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. The plot is simple enough: Mr Baskerville has been murdered. People think it’s a huge hell-hound. Holmes goes up there with Watson to solve the mystery. He does. The End. The show is sold out now, so go and read the book, it’s great.
The script owes a lot to plays like The 39 Steps or The Play That Goes Wrong, yet even those examples aren’t original ideas themselves, so this can be forgiven. Hound is a tight-paced physical comedy that has its three actors multi-roling rapidly between scenes, moving scenery and donning different hats, jackets and accents. It breaks the fourth wall constantly as the very conceit of the play is perpetually on the verge of falling apart, and the actors are forced to break character and become “themselves” more than once. Now, whilst I do have an issue with shows that try to do both a crappy play and make that funny (cod-accents and dodgy props), whilst doing a play crappily (falling down sets and scene changes going wrong), I have to admit the grace and tenacity with which this production was helmed completely won me over and had me giggling with glee. The highlight of the show for me was just after the interval when one of the actors gets irate with the audience after reading an interval tweet and forces his co-stars (and us) to go through the first half at triple speed to prove he was capable of a quicker pace. This moment of building chaos really sums up the production for me; it’s self-aware and tongue-in-cheek, it’s modern and humble, but it’s done with such slickness and panache that the audience are happy to be whipped through the same scenes again, like reading a York Notes Study Guide whilst on amphetamines.
Joey Bartram plays the Great Detective Sherlock Holmes – a role made difficult to make your own after so many iconic performances on screen recently (perhaps the 21st century’s Hamlet?), and this production sees Bartram striding about the stage dripping with confidence (sometimes sweat) and a faraway look, whilst whipping his dark locks about him like he’s modelling shampoo. It’s a boho, gin-drenched, Oxbridge kind of a take on the role, and it’s in keeping with the show, but it’s really the character actor side role/suspects where Bartram shines, teeth-gnashing, winking and scowling his way through scenes.
Adam Elliott plays the Doctor Watson role, which really, due to the absence of Holmes for a large section of the production, is promoted to leading man status. Watson is normally a dog of a part, if you pardon the pun, and yet Elliott does it, thankfully, with charisma and charm. Having seen Elliott perform on the Fringe multiple times now, I’m starting to think that there aren’t many things the actor cannot do. He is a great talent, and one that has a bright future ahead of him. He’s eminently watchable, has an almost flawless grasp of comedic timing, and handles the numerous roles he’s awarded with versatility and a sense of child-like glee.
Andrew Fitch completes the trinity with a wide-eyed and energised Sir Henry Baskerville – the next victim of the Hound that Holmes and Watson are trying to keep from becoming pedigree chum. Fitch has a mountain of roles to contend with (even some that have to be performed on the first floor of the building above the theatre), and he manages to distinguish each one clearly and without undue effort, and he more than gives the two heroes a run for their money in terms of acting chops.
Kate Bannister (director), Karl Swinyard (set design) and Michael Edwards (lighting design) deserve all the credit for turning the small acting space of the Jack Studio Theatre into dozens of different locations, flicking instantly between a foggy moor to a dining room to a train carriage to a horse and cart, all with simple props choices, movement direction, action set pieces, moveable scenery and some of the slickest and most inventive lighting operation I have EVER seen on the Fringe circuit, helmed by Stage Manager John Fricker who seriously deserves an Off West End Award by himself just for managing that many sound and lighting cues on a fringe theatre tech desk.
If not already clear, this play is hilariously funny. The idea is not a new one, nor does it particularly care to strive for anything above an entertaining night out, but it doesn’t have to. It’s an incredibly well-directed, well-performed and well-constructed comedy, that’s firing on all cylinders and never lets up for a second. It’s a work of true skill, made by professionals who know their craft.
Fringe Theatre, at its best, transcends its limitations and is palpably made with love, passion, creativity and care. Kate Bannister and her team have done exactly that. I would say this should transfer somewhere bigger, but then perhaps it might lose some of the charm that makes it so impressive a feat of the face of their restrictions of space and budget. So perhaps I will say that the Jack Studio Theatre deserve and need all the support, investment and love that their community and fanbase can give them, for they really are a jewel in the London Theatre Crown. Edinburgh Festival 2017 Venue Managers, you better get this show booked in whilst you can…
The Hound of the Baskervilles sold-out run at Jack Studio Theatre ends on 8th January.