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.

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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.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉