On Thursday, I had the great pleasure of a night at the West Yorkshire Playhouse for a performance of ‘The Best Kept Secret’, a new Sherlock Holmes play written by Mark Catley.
It was only when I started writing this review that I realised that, on the quiet, I’m a bit of a Sherlock Holmes fan. I haven’t really considered it before, but I’ve watched both of the new Robert Downey Jnr. film adaptations, the BBC series’ ‘Sherlock’ and even ‘Elementary’ with Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Lui. I’ve enjoyed them all, with special reference to Benedict Cumberbatch, for reasons I won’t elaborate on here! And, of course, before all of these and previous TV incarnations, there are the books, which I’ve read and enjoyed too.
So, it probably comes as no surprise to hear that I loved this play. Really loved it. Sometimes, I go to the theatre, opera, ballet, gallery, to be challenged. To come away with questions, and to feel as though I’ve learned something at the end of it, or at the very least to have tried!
But other times, I just want to be whisked away from my everyday life and be entertained. To laugh, engage with a story, and be surprised that hours have passed and it’s the end of the show already. In a nutshell, that’s what this play did.
Warning: The rest of the post contains spoilers!
Setting the play in the Victorian period, rather than updating to contemporary London, gave the brilliantly rotating sets a wonderful, slightly sinister, Steam-punkish quality, enhanced by ever-present swirling smoke. Without wanting to give too much away, the play is set in the period after the events at Reichenbach Falls, which Holmes fans will know as the final showdown between Holmes and his nemesis Moriarty. The opening scenes (after a brilliant first moment in which a rowing boat moves through the darkness) see a retired and broken Sherlock selling stories of his cases to pay the rent. Once Holmes’ brother Mycroft is falsely imprisoned for treason, it is down to Holmes, the ever-faithful Dr Watson and ‘The Woman’ Irene Adler, to clear his name before he is hanged. Complicating matters are Andrew Langtree as the low-level journalist seeking more sensational stories and, of course, Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard, played with a dry wit by Victor McGuire.
I really enjoyed the whole cast, although I have to say that for me, Kerry Peers as the poverty-stricken Mrs Peasgoode was a fabulous scene-stealer even from beyond the grave during a splendidly surreal moment in which Holmes is suffering under the effects of his opiate addition.
Jason Durr is a wonderful Sherlock, struggling with his afflictions, being painfully aware of his shortcomings – at one point asking for lessons in smalltalk – and ultimately triumphing over a foe who seems to know his every move. Adrian Lukas plays his brother Mycroft as an even more socially inept character, despite, or more likely because of, his genius and it is left to us to realise the way in which Sherlock’s relationship with Dr Watson (excellently played by Andrew Hall) has humanised him and made him more able to cope in the world, despite everything.
I read an interview with the play’s writer, Mark Catley, and he’s a big fan of Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy, amongst other wonderful shows) and I see real similarities in their style evident in this play. The fusion of pithy one liners with action, the feeling of being ‘an insider’ with the jokes, and the occasionally uncomfortable combination of the funny with the macabre gave me a feeling that this play didn’t take itself too seriously; perhaps summed up with the line “no shit, Sherlock” being used to great effect by Tanya Franks as Irene Adler. I loved that, despite the obvious comedic elements, there was a huge amount of attention to detail, from the deerstalker and pipe to the 221B painted on the outside of the front door. This may be a brand-new Sherlock Holmes story but it’s one that devoted Holmes fans will appreciate, I’m sure, for these little touches as well as for the story that kept me in its thrall the entire time.
The audience reacted incredibly warmly to the performance, there was much affection for it at the end, and everyone I was with commented that they’d had lots of fun. The play is on at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 8th June and then begins a tour before moving to the West End. If you’re looking for an evening of pure entertainment and a wonderful new story based on well-loved characters, then this is it.