Braden Griffiths and Curt McKinstry bring life to Holmes and Watson in Vertigo Theatre’s Sherlock Holmes and the American Problem

Whether they admit it or not, most people are fans of a good mystery, and more than likely their interest in this genre stems from the stories of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson as written by Arthur Conan Doyle — whether directly through his books or indirectly through the many, many interpretations and adaptations of the characters.

Vertigo Mystery Theatre is ending their season with a bang – literally– with R. Hamilton Wright’s Sherlock Holmes and the American Problem, a production that the actors are excited to bring to Calgary audiences, being fans of the fictional sleuth themselves.

“How can you not be?” muses Curt McKinstry, who plays Watson in this production. “It’s such a great canon of material. There’s been so many different renditions and it’s always fun to see a new take on it and I think thats what’s exciting about this one is it’s a new sort of take on it, new fresh faces for the roles.”

Considering the various incarnations of Holmes and Watson, whether it be the through the novels by Doyle or portrayals by Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, the challenge with a new production is to be able to depict the characters in such a way that audiences recognize them, but at the same time to also bring something fresh and exciting to the table. Braden Griffiths is tasked with the role of Sherlock Holmes in this production, and acknowledges this challenge.

“It’s a lovely script that we’re working with,” he says, “and the playwright, R. Hamilton Wright, is obviously very aware of all of the portrayals of Holmes and Watson in the past and fully aware, I’m sure, of the whole canon of Arthur Conan Doyle, so it’s kind of hard not to bring the spirit of those (into the performance) … I think whenever you’re playing Holmes there is something of a well-beaten path that’s already been walked before, and so you hope to portray some of the spirit of that and then bring your own thing to it. And we can only help but be honest to the script that we’re working on in that theatre. It’s a good script and it guides us pretty well, so I hope it’s a different Holmes, but I hope it can still sit beside the other Holmes in the hearts of people who watch it.”

Unlike more recent screen versions of Sherlock, this production is set in the times of Arthur Conan Doyle, in 1887 London. The city is celebrating the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, and as a result London is teeming with people and action. One of the attractions at the Jubilee is Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show (complete with a herd of buffalo) and of course, Annie Oakley – a key historical figure, who features prominently in the unfolding mystery.

As Griffiths explains “in the cacophony of this Jubilee, crime seems to be increasing in London. Holmes and Watson sort of start the play at a place of wondering why all of a sudden crime has suddenly spiked in London, and in very unusual ways.”

This production promises to be a tour de force, according to McKinstry. “There’s a lot of action in this particular play. I think Vertigo recognizes how passionate people are about this genre and they’ve upped their game a little bit for this one, and that’s why we have so many characters, so many people, the action … it’s quite something to see.”

For the actors, character development, learning about the characters and getting to know them helps to bring personality to their roles. “I like that he’s always sort of three steps behind Holmes and he’s OK with that,” McKinstry says of Watson. “I think he is just absolutely gobsmacked by this individual and just loves being around the excitement that he draws, somewhat reluctantly. I think he gets a little bit uppity about, you know, him getting himself into danger, but at the same time I think he really enjoys … the action that surrounds Holmes and the lifestyle that they lead and he’s just really wrapped up in all of that, and I absolutely think that this play captures that.”

As for Griffiths’ take on Holmes, he sees the humanity in the character. “I think the reasons I like Holmes are the reasons that everybody likes Holmes – Holmes is a man of super-human abilities, he is somebody who we wonder at. He’s this person that we put on a pedestal in terms of his intellectual abilities, but he’s broken in so many ways, and so I love that balance … and the juxtaposition of those two things and how those two things come into contact. I love the heart of Holmes, and he hides that heart from a lot of the rest of the world, but every once in a while there’s a glimmer of light that comes out, and I think it’s those tiny glimmers of light that help this character to endure. And a lot of the time that light is directed at Watson.”

The relationship between Holmes and Watson, regardless of what version of the characters you are familiar with, is obviously complex and profound — concepts that are not lost on Griffiths when further considering his character. “Those moments of pure humanity from a man who appears robotic at times, intellectually robotic – I think it’s such a textured world that Conan Doyle created, and without Watson I just don’t think, the more and more we do this, the more I don’t think it works without Watson. I think Holmes is an incredible character, but I think Watson is actually the key.”

McKinstry adds, “I think Watson brings the humanity out of him, and we need to see that in order to relate to him (Holmes).”

Sherlock Holmes and the American Problem promises to keep audiences on their toes and at the edge of their seats with non-stop action. “And it never really stops,” promises Griffiths, “once that train leaves that station it doesn’t stop until it hits Whitechapel.”

“I’d say the mystery is not an easy one to solve,” McKinstry adds. “I don’t think people can expect to  come to this and be able to figure it out right away, and so if you like a challenge of coming and going, ‘What? What’s going on? I wanna figure out what’s happening here,’ I think it will be a good challenge for people and I think that people will really enjoy that. Because a lot of the season subscribers here really love that challenge, they’re here to solve it. They’ll have their hands full.”

Sherlock Holmes and the American Problem is directed by Mark Bellamy and runs at Vertigo Theatre until June 16.

(Photo: diane+mike photography. L-R: Curt McKinstry, Braden Griffiths, and Charlie Gould)

Kari Watson is a writer and former Listings Editor of FFWD Weekly, and has continued to bring event listings to Calgary through theYYSCENE and her event listings page, The Culture Cycle. Contact her at