Friday, 5 February 2016

Sherlock Holmes and the Ripper Murders. Reviewed at The Hexagon, Reading, 27th October 2015

This is another production from the prolific talking Scarlet Company written by the late Brian Clemens. There are many theories about The Whitechapel Murders and the identity of Jack the Ripper. For his story Clemens has followed very much the theory laid down by Stephen Knight in his 1976 book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution.

Clemens’ plot certainly has something for everyone out there whether they are ‘ripperologists’ and their determination in uncovering the murderer’s identity, conspiracy theorists, or just plain fans of the Sherlock Holmes canon. It explores only one avenue of thought as to the identity of Jack the Ripper yet it is still a suitable way of introducing a whole host of conspiratorial characters including Andrew Paul as reputable physician Sir William Gull, a man who may have had blood on his hands and his possible accomplice, Netley, played with menace by Michael Kirk. There is even a touch of spiritualism in the guise of Lara Lemon’s Kate Mead.

However, let us turn to those two most enduring literary characters, Holmes and Watson. It is good to see that we have now ditched that entire Inverness cape and deerstalker nonsense that has plagued the consulting detective since Sidney Paget’s illustrations in the Strand Magazine. It’s a welcome departure and eagerly embraced here by Samuel Clemens’ Holmes who plays it straight and without the theatrical flushes that dogged Jeremy Brett and Basil Rathbone.

His Holmes is logical yet somewhat vulnerable, maybe even possessing a heart and provides a perfect foil to George Telfer’s witty and strident Watson. Telfer adds both humour and a vitality that sharply contrasts to the disturbing thread of the onstage action.

There is little in the way of a set, a couple of chairs, a table and a couple of platforms. Locations are illustrated by back projections on what looked like mighty curtains. It somehow worked but did not lend itself satisfactorily to the intimidating Hexagon space. 

Overall, though, it was a rewarding performance. It was erudite and cunning and offered up another strand in the ongoing fascination for the perpetrator of those vicious late nineteenth century crimes. I am sure there will be others who will follow, new theories, new disputes but the moment let’s leave it with Brian Clemens and the team at talking Scarlet.

CLASSIC GHOST STORIES Reviewed at The Haymarket Theatre, Basingstoke. 22nd October 2015

The Waiting Room by Robert Aickman
Adapted by Francis Evelyn
Designed & directed by Michael Lunney

The Signalman by Charles Dickens
Adapted by Francis Evelyn
Designed & directed by Michael Lunney

The first piece in this performance is by the lesser-known author and canal enthusiast, Robert Aickman. He described his work as simply a “strange tales"
The Waiting Room sees Pendlebury, played by Jack Shepherd, stranded at the end of the line, and forced to stay in the station’s waiting room. Not an easy night as he is dogged by ghostly phantoms of soldiers and their lovers. One already feels it’s not going to turn out well for him.
I found it clich├ęd in parts, especially its misty-eyed view of the ‘Great War’. For example, did we really need a rendition of “Keep the Home Fires Burning”? Did we really need a performance of “Keep the Home Fires Burning”? On the other hand, when Aickman wrote his story, his ideas were probably still fresh. Nevertheless, it did not feel right. My suspicions were aroused when however I read how his story had been adapted for the stage.

Francis Evelyn writes, “Knowing that he was born in 1914 and that his life was very much influenced by the First World War, I took the liberty of weaving a narrative of that sort into the original script.”
 I am not sure here if it did work. I found it rather dull and felt little empathy. Furthermore, it lacked the ghostly atmosphere that one expects in such a tale.

The second piece, The Signalman by Charles Dickens, however, made up for my initial disappointment. He has become synonymous with the classic English ghost story, most notably his eerie tale A Christmas Carol. However, most readers may have gone no further than the novel. It’s a pity as he produced other works such as this. It is a well-crafted piece and a joy to see it brought to the stage.

Jack Shepherd shines as the tormented signalman haunted by visions of impending disaster on his isolated stretch of line. Richard Walsh’s anonymous ‘Traveller’ listens with intensity and slight scepticism to the Signalman’s tale of a ghostly spectre haunting the nearby tunnel, each sighting indicating impending disaster.

It was far more satisfying in its execution and atmosphere than The Waiting Room. It brought a chill to the stage and invoked a ghostly sense of dread that was sadly lacking in the first half.
Therefore, for me one worked and the other disappointed. I found it especially hard, as I am something of an Aickman devotee. However, on the plus side and despite my reservations it is good to see that such works are still valued and worthy of being brought to the stage by companies such as Middle Ground.

This first appeared in The Newbury Weekly News 29th October 2015