For Blackeyed Theatre ‘The game is afoot’ as Sherlock Holmes decodes The Valley of Fear

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Blackeyed Theatre’s Sherlock Holmes: The Valley of Fear: Filmed (directed by Alex Harvey-Brown) at Bracknell’s Wilde Theatre, 16.9.2022, and available here as a digital stream. (JPr)

Dr Watson (Joseph Derrington) and Luke Barton (Sherlock Holmes) © Alex Harvey-Brown

Writer and Director – Nick Lane
Composer – Tristan Parkes
Set designer – Victoria Spearing
Lighting designer – Oliver Welsh
Costume designer – Naomi Gibbs
Action designer – Robert Myles
Producer – Adrian McDougall

Sherlock Holmes / Teddy Baldwin – Luke Barton
Doctor John Watson / Thad Morris / Eldon Stanger – Joseph Derrington
Jack McMurdo / Detective White-Mason / Birdy Edwards / John Douglas – Blake Kubena
Inspector MacDonald / Officer Jasper / Ames / Bodymaster McGinty / Cecil Barker / Professor Moriarty – Gavin Molloy
Mrs Hudson / Officer Marvin / Ettie Shafter / Mrs.Allen / Mrs. Ivy Douglas – Alice Osmanski

Blackeyed Theatre describes themselves as ‘one of the UK’s leading mid-scale touring theatre companies’ who since 2004 ‘have been creating exciting opportunities for artists and audiences by producing theatre that’s audacious, accessible and memorable.’ Recent world premiere productions include Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, Jane Eyre, The Sign of Four, The Great Gatsby and Dracula and they are currently touring Nick Lane’s adaptation of the last of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s full-length Sherlock Holmes novels, The Valley of Fear.

Now my background is that the anthology of short stories about Sherlock Holmes was my essential reading on any long journey I made when I was decades younger. I have not read them again for some time but still avidly revisit any old film or TV versions, and any new ones that appear infrequently. My favourites still are Basil Rathbone’s jingoistic wartime film series and – for me the definitive Holmes – Douglas Wilmer’s short-lived BBC assumption of role in the mid-60s. Later that decade the BBC made a series with Peter Cushing who had appeared in the well-regarded The Hound of the Baskervilles for Hammer Films in 1959. In the subsequent years there was the criminally underrated 1970 The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes from legendary film director Billy Wilder, Jeremy Brett’s Holmes for ITV and Benedict Cumberbatch’s updated Sherlock for BBC in four series from 2010 till 2017. It was created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss and featured Martin Freeman as Holmes’s trusty companion Dr John Watson and the late Una Stubbs as the landlady at 221B Baker Street, Mrs Hudson.

It is the Cumberbatch version that clearly has influenced how Nick Lane’s depicts Luke Barton’s Holmes and Joseph Derrington’s Watson in his The Valley of Fear and they are more youthful than we ‘traditionally’ see. Conan Doyle’s 1914 novel isn’t one I have read as much as The Hound of the Baskervilles or The Sign of Four and it was good not to have solved the mystery before watching Blackeyed Theatre’s very welcome digital stream!

Holmes is with Watson in Baker Street when he receives a cipher from an informant. He decodes it with the aid of a Whitaker’s Almanack, and it reads ‘There is danger—may—come—very—soon—one–Douglas-rich—country-now-at—Birlstone—House—confidence—is—pressing’. Inspector MacDonald soon arrives to tell Holmes that indeed a Mr John Douglas of Birlstone Manor House, Birlstone, Sussex, has been ‘horribly murdered’. For Holmes ‘The game is afoot’ and sets off with Watson and MacDonald for Birlstone to meet the local detective there, White-Mason. Watson narrates how he is ‘Preparing to decode a mystery that had it roots planted 20 years earlier and some 4000 miles away’. (We soon realise that this device – which will extend the play beyond its natural length – is necessary because there is hard-working cast of five actors portraying 20 roles!) Watson continues, ‘And now if I may beg your indulgence, we shall leave the familiar confines of Baker Street and head back in time to the coal-rich state of Pennsylvania better to entangle those roots.’

We are now back in 1875 and hear (the cast?) intone a traditional song ‘Parting Friends’ and its repeat of ‘I hope we’ll meet in Canaan’s land’ which adds to the atmosphere with the change to the Pennsylvania scene. It all gets a bit complicated initially with the actors in different roles, but it all works surprisingly well. We meet gun-toting Brother John McMurdo travelling from Chicago to Vermissa at the head of Vermissa Valley and who is looking for work. On the journey he meets another Brother from the local lodge (341) who suggests he goes to the Union House and see Boss McGinty, the Bodymaster of Vermissa Lodge. He is the head of an infamous gang of enforcers (and murderers) called the Scowrers. At the local boarding house, he falls for Ettie, the daughter of its owner, and to cut a long story short, despite Ettie’s protestations he inveigles himself into the gang.

At Birlstone House we learn how John Douglas supposedly made his money in the Californian gold fields before coming to England with his second wife. He had been shot in the head with a sawn-off shotgun obliterating his features, there was a card in his hand with ‘V. V. 341’, his wedding ring is missing, and there is a brand-like scar – a triangle within a circle – on his arm. There is a muddy boot print by the window and a suggestion the murderer jumped out into the moat to make their escape. Holmes soon wonders why he can only find one small dumbbell when he expects Douglas used two. Equally puzzling is why Ivy, Douglas’s supposedly loving wife, is not as distressed as one might expect? And why does the story of family friend, Cecil Barker, who discovered the body quickly unravel.

Professor Moriarty (Gavin Molloy) and Luke Barton (Sherlock Holmes) © Alex Harvey-Brown

Along the way Holmes is confronted by his nemesis Professor Moriarty who threatens Watson and Mary, his new bride. (Again, Gavin Molloy owed much to Andrew Scott’s Moriarty in Sherlock.) Truth-be-told Watson’s storytelling does hold everything up but is needed for the cast to change their clothes, it makes it rather like a radio play and you could probably enjoy The Valley of Fear just as much with your eyes shut. However, Victoria Spearing’s single set – basically some distressed wood and William Morris-style wallpaper – is quite effective as we pass back and forth from Pennsylvania to Kent with minimal changes of stage furniture until – with some entertaining banter and well-choreographed action – all is revealed. It isn’t one of Conan Doyle’s best stories, but I certainly enjoyed being in the company of Holmes and Watson once again.

I watched something like this during lockdown and by comparison that was like am-dram (not to belittle some exceptional amateur companies!) compared to the acting in The Valley of Fear which was as good as I have seen at somewhere like the National Theatre. Luke Barton, Joseph Derrington, Blake Kubena, Gavin Molloy and Alice Osmanski were an exceptionally hardworking and accomplished cast in a number of different roles with differing accents. The intense Barton did bring to life (as Watson describes him) an ‘arrogant, infuriating, complex, brilliant man’ but channels Henry Higgins from My Fair Lady a little too much. There is great chemistry between him and Joseph Derrington’s personable and ever-loyal Watson. Derrington wasn’t Nigel Bruce, Nigel Stock or Edward Hardwicke from film and TV, but he portrayed the best qualities of them all including Colin Blakely in the Billy Wilder film – a particular favourite of mine – who he reminded me of most.

Blackeyed Theatre’s The Valley of Fear is highly recommended for all devotees of Conan Doyle’s Holmes and watch it on tour at a theatre near you or see this enjoyable HD recording for yourself.

Jim Pritchard

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