There’s something about Sherlock Holmes that continues to fascinate audiences more than 130 years after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle birthed him in A Study In Scarlet. Four novels and 56 short stories apparently weren’t enough, and authors, filmmakers, graphic artists and video game designers have continued to give Holmes and his archetypal sidekick Dr. Watson new adventures that Doyle couldn’t possibly have imagined. Seattle actor and playwright R. Hamilton Wright joined a fraternity of such artists as Stephen Fry and Neil Gaiman when he wrote Sherlock Holmes and the American Problem, which was a key part of Vertigo’s 2017-18 season. On the strength of that well-received production as well as audiences’ predilection for anything Holmes, Vertigo has already had to extend the run of Wright’s new play by a week.
The mostly full houses won’t be disappointed with the world premiere of Sherlock Holmes and the Raven’s Curse. Wright has penned a fast-paced, cleverly-crafted new story for Holmes (Braden Griffiths) and Watson (Curt McKinstry), taking place six months after the death of Watson’s wife. The grieving doctor has isolated himself and is in need of something to pull him back into life, just at the moment when Holmes learns that an uncle on the Isle of Skye has died under somewhat mysterious circumstances, and left him some property. That provides the impetus for the pair to travel to Scotland to put their investigative skills to the test.
The family connection opens up a heretofore unknown window into Holmes’ backstory, including a cousin, Beatrice (Katherine Fadum), who comes to London to tell Sherlock and his brother Mycroft (Garett Ross) of their respective bequests in her father’s will. She meets with the brothers at the Diogenes Club, well-known to fans of the franchise, and bemoans the “paleolithic paternalism” of the club’s rules on admittance of women. Beatrice has a sister, Fiona (Rong Fu), born in Hong Kong and adopted by Holmes’ aunt and uncle when her parents died. Fiona is the rare human that Holmes respects as his intellectual match, and as a close childhood friend, she draws out new facets of his character.
Narda McCarroll’s set and lighting together with Beth Kates’ projections are perhaps the true stars of the production, providing a shifting landscape that smoothly takes us from 221B Baker Street to a train at King’s Cross to a misty cliff on the Isle of Skye. The projections are complex and layered, but rarely upstage the action or the characters.
Griffiths and McKinstry reprise their respective roles as Holmes and Watson, and they have a chemistry and mastery of the characters that provide for the play’s best moments. With the same playwright and actors as The American Problem but a new director (Jenna Rodgers), it is possible to see where directorial choices are different. Rodgers has given us a slightly less frenetic, more self-aware and empathetic Holmes, which may or may not appeal to those who feel they know the detective’s classic narcissistic psychopathology well. McKinstry has an opportunity to play with Watson a little as well, as he goes undercover as Holmes’ valet. Some of the other performances are uneven, but the source material is articulate and well-structured, which covers a multitude of sins.
If there is a flaw in the text, it might be that it becomes a bit didactic and weighed down with exposition in Act Two — an occupational hazard of mystery theatre. Holmes repeatedly bemoans the fact that he has to “pull it apart” and walk his rapt listeners through his seemingly miraculous deductions — he finds it tedious. But when it comes to Fiona and her experiences as a Chinese woman raised in Scotland, the playwright certainly does “pull it apart” with great vigour. He shows us her alienation and lack of a sense of place in her constant rambling around the world, but then tells us quite earnestly as well, in a scene that could be deleted with very little impact on the play. It’s a small quibble, though, in a play that is polished and entertaining, and well-deserving of full houses.
(Photo courtesy Citrus Photo.)
Sherlock Holmes and the Raven’s Curse runs at Vertigo Theatre until Dec. 14.
Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.