Review: The Sign of Four at Greenwich Theatre

When it comes to British literature, characters don’t come much more iconic than Sherlock Holmes – and much like James Bond or Doctor Who, Baker Street’s famous consulting detective has worn a variety of faces over the last century or so (over 70 actors in movies alone, according to Wikipedia). We could be forgiven, then, for thinking he’s given us as much entertainment as we can reasonably expect from one fictional character… but then along come Blackeyed Theatre to prove us all wrong.

The Sign of Four at Greenwich Theatre

Nick Lane’s new adaptation of the second Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of Four, is thrilling, funny and endlessly creative in its storytelling. It also gives Holmes a fresh new face in Luke Barton, who perfectly captures the arrogance and disdain for sentiment that you’d expect to find in any portrayal of the famously brilliant sleuth. Unlike some others, though, he’s also rather charming, and there’s often a mischievous twinkle in his eye – particularly during his exchanges with Watson – that suggests he’s much more in tune with human emotions than he’d have us believe. Most importantly, he has fantastic chemistry with Joseph Derrington’s exasperated but loyal Watson (also the play’s narrator) and their friendship is not just very believable but completely engaging throughout. Completing the core trio of characters is Stephanie Rutherford as Mary, who refreshingly refuses to be relegated to the role of damsel in distress, pointing out more than once that she’s quite capable of speaking for herself, thank you very much.

As for the plot, it’s typically complex and intricately detailed – but Lane’s adaptation, in which six actors play around 20 different characters between them, probably makes it as accessible as it’s possible for it to be. The gist is that Holmes and an instantly lovestruck Watson are hired by governess Mary Morstan to solve the mystery of her father’s disappearance and discover who’s been sending her precious jewels in the mail – and, more to the point, why. The case is complicated further when a body is discovered (inside a locked room, naturally) and a bumbling police inspector (Christopher Glover) insists on arresting the wrong man (Ru Hamilton), seemingly for no other reason than to settle a personal score with Holmes. One high speed boat chase down the Thames later, Holmes and Watson have their quarry (Zach Lee), and it turns out he has quite a story to tell…

The Sign of Four at Greenwich Theatre

To bring an ambitious plot such as this to life on stage requires no small amount of creativity and precision, and the cast of six deliver, juggling accents, costumes, timelines, musical instruments and pieces of the set as we travel across London and all the way to India in search of the truth. Tristan Parkes’ music fits the piece perfectly, and is a crucial element of the production without ever distracting us from the action. Victoria Spearing’s set is a work of genius, more than once drawing delighted laughter from the audience as it’s rearranged to become a boat, a carriage, a fort, a dock and any number of other settings. And finally, a special mention to costume designer Naomi Gibbs, who rises admirably to the challenge posed by a one-legged man.

The Sign of Four is fast-paced family fun, a great piece of storytelling with a little bit of everything: mystery, comedy, romance (and bromance), and even a bit of a history lesson – albeit one from which Britain emerges in a less than positive light. Blackeyed Theatre’s touring production is a hugely entertaining adventure, and a welcome return for everyone’s favourite consulting detective.

The Sign of Four is at Greenwich Theatre until 11th May, before continuing on tour. For details of all dates and venues, visit

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Review: The Trials of Oscar Wilde at Greenwich Theatre

Exactly 124 years ago, on 3rd April 1895, the hearing of a libel case opened at the Old Bailey. The prosecutor was the renowned playwright Oscar Wilde; the defendant was the Marquess of Queensberry who, concerned by his son’s close relationship with the writer, had accused him in a note of “posing as a somdomite”. Outraged, Wilde sued for defamation, but the move backfired spectacularly; faced with overwhelming evidence that he was, in fact, homosexual – at that time an illegal act – he was forced to drop the case, only to be arrested immediately and sentenced just a few weeks later to two years hard labour.

Photo credit: David Bartholemew

The Trials of Oscar Wilde, co-written by John O’Connor and Oscar Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland, is based on court transcripts from the two trials, and charts Wilde’s rapid downfall. Just days before the libel case began, The Importance of Being Earnest had opened at St James’s Theatre, and Wilde was complacent enough to believe that his success as a writer would make for an easy win. The production – also directed by John O’Connor, with Eva Savage – sets the drama not in a courtroom but on a stage, and in Act 1 Wilde takes to it like a true showman. But over the next hour, his relaxed confidence is chipped away piece by piece, and the man who appears at his own criminal trial in Act 2, though still possessing the same sharp wit, appears shaken and humbled by his sudden fall from grace.

This dramatic transformation is captured to perfection in a brilliant central performance from John Gorick, who leads the four-man cast with effortless style. Around him, his fellow cast members slip in and out of a variety of costumes to play multiple different characters, with impressive versatility and more than a little humour; Benjamin Darlington and Patrick Knox have particular fun as a short-sighted hotel chambermaid and an Italian masseuse respectively. The real highlight of the play, however, is the clashes between Gorick and Rupert Mason, who plays both the defence lawyer who meticulously unravels Wilde’s libel case and the prosecutor who sees him condemned to prison. Though of very different temperaments, the men are equally matched in their skill as orators, and in their hands an encounter that could on paper have become rather dry crackles with tension.

Though it references it several times, The Trials of Oscar Wilde is not The Importance of Being Earnest. For one thing, there are considerably fewer laughs to be found in this tragic true story of a great literary talent brought down by society’s intolerance and prejudice. It’s also considerably more demanding for the audience; the play puts us in the position of the jury in both trials (though unfortunately we get no say over the final decision), and as such it demands our constant attention – just as would be the case in a real court, we have to stay focused throughout so as not to miss any name, date or other important detail. None of which is to say that the play isn’t entertaining – there are certainly moments of light relief, and the staging of the courtroom scenes is very well done.

Most of us know something of how Oscar Wilde’s story ended, but perhaps not so many are aware that in effect he set in motion his own downfall. This play fills in the gaps in a way that’s both educational and dramatically satisfying. A fascinating true story, very skilfully told.

The Trials of Oscar Wilde is at Greenwich Theatre until 6th April then continues on tour until June.

Review: One Last Waltz at Greenwich Theatre

Inspired by and performed in memory of writer and director Luke Adamson’s grandad Ernest, One Last Waltz from Black Coffee Theatre is a poignant and deeply personal portrayal of Alzheimer’s and the impact it can have on people’s lives and relationships.

The play was written with the aim of raising awareness of the disease, particularly in the early stages when symptoms can be easily dismissed as signs of old age or just “getting a bit forgetful”. This is the point at which we meet recently widowed Alice, who’s come into the room looking for something – if only she could remember what. What she does find are her old dancing shoes, which spark long ago memories of waltzing in Blackpool with her husband George.

Alice’s daughter Mandy, who’s becoming more and more concerned about her mum’s memory lapses, suggests the two of them take a trip to the Blackpool hotel her parents stayed in, and go for one last waltz at the Tower. The only problem is that the hotel’s in decline, the Tower’s closed down, and nothing about the town is quite as Alice remembers it. As she becomes increasingly confused and distressed, Mandy – with a bit of help from hotel manager Georgette – begins to understand the difficult road that lies ahead.

Unsurprisingly, the writing shows a real understanding of the nature of Alzheimer’s: that it doesn’t happen all at once but begins with small, barely noticeable lapses that slowly build up to form a bigger picture. As the play opens, Alice – played with touching vulnerability by Amanda Reed – seems quite lucid; the only clue that something might be wrong is that she’s wearing her top inside out and keeps getting distracted from her search for photo albums. Her memories of 1958 are clear as day (including a nice reference to Ken Dodd, the inclusion of which may or may not be a coincidence), and yet she doesn’t remember having breakfast that morning, and as the play goes on she finds herself forgetting more and more – including, most tragically, that her husband passed away two months ago.

At the same time, the play also examines the strain that looking after someone with Alzheimer’s can place on family and friends. As single mum Mandy, Julie Binysh strikes a perfect balance between exasperation, anxiety and tenderness – but the biggest surprise is Julia Faulkner’s deceptively humorous Georgette, who unexpectedly reveals that she understands all too well what Mandy’s going through, and that she sees in Alice an opportunity to atone for a decision that’s haunted her for years.

There’s never any attempt to deny the fact that Alzheimer’s is a desperately cruel way to lose someone, and the play certainly succeeds in its aim to inform audiences about what to look out for, and the difficulties of living with the condition. But although we’re all too aware that this ultimately won’t be a story with a happy ending, the play contains lots of moments of humour, and concludes on a heartwarming note as Alice finally gets to waltz again in Blackpool. And as Luke Adamson writes of his grandad in the show programme (originally written for his funeral, after he passed away in December 2017), “although he faded away somewhat over the last few years, that cannot take away a lifetime of memories that can’t help but bring a smile to your face”. The image of Mandy and Alice embracing on the dance floor, ready to face up to the uncertain future that lies ahead, is exactly the right note on which to end this moving and heartfelt tribute.

One Last Waltz has now concluded its run at Greenwich Theatre, but for news about future productions from Black Coffee Theatre, visit or follow @BlackCoffeeUK.

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Review: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde at Greenwich Theatre

Nick Lane’s new adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde takes the gothic novella by Robert Louis Stevenson and fills in some of the gaps. While this might not please everyone, I must admit I haven’t read the book, so personally I had no problem with the plot’s bare bones being substantially fleshed out. Inspired by Lane’s own experience following an accident that permanently damaged his neck and back, this production humanises the troubled Dr Jekyll and offers some justification for his actions… and even manages to raise a bit of sympathy for the villainous Mr Hyde.

The basic plot of the novella is reasonably well known; mild-mannered, respected scientist Dr Jekyll invents a serum that transforms him into a violent, remorseless alter ego: Mr Hyde. In this version, however, he also has a love interest – his friend Hastie’s wife Eleanor, whose fascination with his work and dissatisfaction with her own uninspiring life make her an unwitting catalyst to the devastating events that follow.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown

The cast is small – just four actors play all the characters between them – but perfectly formed, working comfortably together as an ensemble but also impressing individually. Jack Bannell in particular gives an excellent physical performance, his demeanour, voice, and personality completely changing before our eyes as he transforms from the stooped figure of Jekyll into the cold, predatory Hyde. At first brusque and dismissive, Jekyll is softened by his love for Eleanor and his own weakening body, his desperation over both causing him to experiment on himself. Knowing this, it’s easier to understand – even if still impossible to condone – what led him to this point, and to sympathise with the temptation that keeps drawing him back to the physically stronger and more passionate Hyde.

Paige Round is similarly impressive as Eleanor. Far from a token love interest, she finds herself on her own dark path as she breaks away from good guy husband Hastie and is drawn inexorably to Hyde. It’s a bit of a cliché, maybe – women like a bad boy, etc – but the actors make it believable, with a sizzling chemistry that’s noticeably absent between Eleanor and Ashley Sean-Cook’s nice but boring Hastie. The inclusion of Eleanor also allows for a bit of discussion on gender issues; both Hastie and Jekyll initially dismiss her interest in and understanding of their work, and it’s largely Hastie’s expectation that she stay at home and play the little wife that pushes her towards Hyde in the first place.

The cast is completed by Zach Lee as Jekyll’s concerned friend and lawyer Gabriel Utterson; though his primary role is to narrate the uncovering of Jekyll’s secret, he also appears in arguably the most visually striking scene in the play: an intense, dramatic slow motion sequence that’s so perfectly choreographed we can feel every blow.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown

The play’s performances are supported by Claire Childs’ lighting design, which makes great use of bold colours and projected shadows to establish a threatening atmosphere from the beginning, and haunting melodies composed by Tristan Parkes beautifully performed by Paige Round and the rest of the cast.

While perhaps not the story Robert Louis Stevenson intended, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde does remain faithful to the central plot, and offers an interesting – if rather more forgiving – interpretation of the story and its central character. Touching on a variety of themes, including gender issues, mental health and the ethical responsibilities of science, this chilling new adaptation certainly gives us plenty to think about.

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Review: Frankenstein at Greenwich Theatre

200 years after Mary Shelley wrote her classic gothic novel, Frankenstein returns to the stage in the skilled hands of Blackeyed Theatre. Adapted by John Ginman, this concise, two-hour retelling is suitably chilling and atmospheric while remaining family friendly, and is executed to perfection by a multi-talented cast of five… or should that be six?

Keeping true to the “story within a story within a story” format of Shelley’s novel, Eliot Giuralarocca’s production is set on the ship of Robert Walton, an explorer to the North Pole, who rescues the exhausted Victor Frankenstein from the ice. Walton becomes fascinated by the mysterious stranger’s story of how, driven by crazed ambition, he built and gave life to a Creature, only to reject it and in doing so, drive it into a destructive cycle of loneliness and despair that ended up costing him everything.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown
Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown

The story, spanning several years, moves quickly – from Geneva to Ingolstadt to London to Scotland, and far beyond – and the cast do likewise. While Ben Warwick is on stage throughout as the wild-eyed, fast-talking, increasingly dishevelled Frankenstein, his fellow cast members are scarcely less busy. Each takes on multiple roles within the story, while still finding time to pop round the back of the stage and bring Ron McAllister’s dramatic soundtrack to life on timpani, cymbals and a variety of other ingenious, home-made instruments.

Act 1 is largely there to set up the story, and is quite science-heavy as Frankenstein describes his studies and his urgent desire to create life. But it’s in Act 2 that the production becomes truly electrifying, with the first real appearance of Yvonne Stone’s life-size Bunraku style puppet. Built from rope and cloth, with blank, staring eyes, the Creature is manipulated so skilfully by the cast, and voiced so perfectly by Louis Labovitch, that it’s genuinely possible to forget the actors are there at all, and to think of Frankenstein’s creation as entirely separate from the other characters they play: kind, beautiful Elizabeth (Lara Cowin), Victor’s supportive friend Henry (Max Gallagher), Walton, the explorer hanging on his every word, but not necessarily for the right reasons (Ashley Sean-Cook), and a multitude of cameo appearances as other minor characters. This is a production that’s about so much more than the impressive individual performances; it’s a seamless ensemble effort that requires everyone to be in exactly the right place at the right time.

Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown
Photo credit: Alex Harvey-Brown

Victoria Spearing’s set takes inspiration from the ship on which the story begins and ends, and as Frankenstein narrates his tale, it springs to life from the materials around him. So the sail becomes a river; the Creature is formed from bundles and sacks of old rope and rags; more ropes are transformed into the electric wires that finally give it life. It’s testament both to the actors’ performance and the simple, descriptive style of John Ginman’s script, that without ever leaving the ship’s deck, we find ourselves transported to workshops, stormy mountaintops, courtrooms and even looking out over the quiet beauty of Lake Geneva.

I remember being a bit surprised the first time I read Frankenstein, because it felt a bit tame, not the out-and-out horror I’d been expecting. Similarly, Blackeyed Theatre’s excellent production doesn’t set out to shock us, but instead to send us home with a creeping unease as we contemplate the dangerous implications of arrogant human ambition. Though there’s certainly an element of suspense, the Creature’s crimes (most of which we don’t even see committed) provoke more sadness than fear, while he himself is so human that it’s harder to shrug his deeds off as merely the work of the supernatural – and so ironically it’s humanity, rather than monstrosity, that’s most likely to keep us awake at night.

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