The Hound of the Baskervilles – Review – East Riding Theatre
By Elizabeth Stanforth-Sharpe, May 2022
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle almost didn’t write The Hound of the Baskervilles. He had killed off the detective Sherlock Holmes in the 1893 story, The Final Problem, left his typewriter behind and gone to serve as a medic in South Africa’s Langman Field Hospital for the duration of the second Boer War.
Eight years later, having returned to England, Conan Doyle was inspired by the English folklore of the Yeth Hounds that roamed across Dartmoor in the dead of night, and the true story of Squire Richard Cadell, an evil and notoriously cruel landowner of Buckfastleigh in Devon, rumoured to have murdered his wife. When Cadell died, a pack of hounds came nightly to howl at his tomb, and the local folk gave report of his ghost leading phantom hounds across the moors.
An idea baying, Conan Doyle resurrected Sherlock Holmes, muttering that the detective had merely pretended to die, and the first serialisation of The Hound of The Baskervilles was published in 1901. The dogs were well and truly out. The story has featured regularly in lists of favourite novels and has been adapted many times for radio, television, audio books, stage, animation, video games and more, for over a hundred years, and its popularity endures.
I have seen Steven Canny and John Nicholson’s spoof stage adaptation presented in several places with varying degrees of success, but none of those interpretations have had the zany joy, sheer energy and theatrical clowning self-confidence as that of Marieke Audsley’s direction for East Riding Theatre at Beverley.
“Physical strength and energy”
The show was originally programmed for 2020, but its enforced re-scheduling is a fortunate stroke of serendipity; a gift of laughter and escape to the people of the East Riding of Yorkshire at a time when the ghosts of world events and the hounds that prowl are hauntingly near. Audsley is no stranger to the wonderfully intimate stage at East Riding Theatre, having directed Frost Hollow Hall in 2021 and Beryl in 2019, understanding well the wingless platform it presents and the ingenuities of staging a production that its configuration opens up; an unseen horse being coaxed forward by the reins from backstage is far more believable than one being pulled sidewards from the wings, doors that gave the mansion a sense of depth gave moving from room to room a credibility, and hilarious switching between characters was made all the more funny when the movements were instantaneous.
Switching between characters was a major part of this production. The whole play involved just three actors, all stalwarts of East Riding Theatre, but what a well-cast and synchronous trio they were. Mariana Barbera, who played six different roles, showed her versatility as both the sober detective keeping the play moving, and in conveying the more ludicrous personas.
Annie Kirkman, the founder of She Productions, an associate company of ERT, was superb in both of her characterisations, but it was Watson, ever hopeful of cracking the mystery to impress his mentor Holmes, which allowed her to explore fully her pleasure in sharing with the audience the visual and vocal foolishness of life.
Mark Conway is as well known for his work as a Movement Director as he is for being an actor, and the physical strength and energy he brings to his performance of six characters is mesmerising.
By using the device of breaking the fourth wall, bringing the audience into their confidence and allowing the characters to not try to do what is funny, but to simply respond to the circumstances in front of them, taking risks and using failure as a springboard to the next moment, the characters believe themselves to be in control, but the audience clearly sees that they are not.
The funny moments are always in the discrepancy. The character may be comedic, but the performer never is; having the skill to do the theatrical clowning shown throughout The Hound of the Baskervilles requires serious technique, constant concentration and full commitment to working intentionally as a team. It is physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting, and Barbera, Kirkman, and Conway, are to be commended on being so fully invested through a long performance.
There was only one small scene I was unsure of. As the audience returned to their seats after the interval, using the tactic of a supposed Tweet, the cast did a frantic re-appraisal of the story so far. It was funny and clever, but I was puzzled by the purpose of it. As a gag about social media, it somehow didn’t hit the mark and could have been cut, but I’m not sure whether that was its sole aim. Was it there to give the actors necessary time to connect and re-energise again after a break? I felt genuinely perplexed and sat for a few moments pondering what was the thought process in including it. That said, it didn’t detract too much, from what was an otherwise impeccably well-put-together production.
Amy Watts has designed for another incarnation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and it was interesting to see how much her work has developed and matured in the interim. Her costumes for ERT’s The Hound of the Baskervilles are slick and stylish, allow the actors to move freely, but also have the required quirkiness and slap-stick ethos where needed. The set was ingeniously complex in its simplicity. Watts is fast earning her reputation as a quality theatre designer, and I’m excited to see where her career takes her next.
Local talent Jessie Addinall never fails to inspire with their lighting designs. The show needed misty moors, creepy buildings, torch lights and sinister sightings, which might have suggested a one beat approach to the lighting, but Addinall makes it nuanced and subtle, and interrupted by romantic encounters and busy railway stations, there’s scope for the full vista of their expertise. And, of course, wherever Addinall goes, Odin the dog goes too. He has his own place in the programme, professional headshot included, and played an active role in rehearsals.
“A balance between all creatives”
Damien Coldwell, as Sound Designer and Composer, defined the overall atmosphere and effectiveness in telling the story, a critical component in the audience’s perception of any play, and for The Hound of the Baskervilles, he had lots of opportunity to add to the madcap mystery’s atmosphere by creating sound effects and musical scores, including doors creaking, guns being fired, cows mooing, lambs bleating, hounds howling, a stubborn horse escaping and a touching dance routine.
The Hound of the Baskervilles clearly showed the functioning of a well-brought together, well directed team, who acted as a whole unit to bring this production to success. For the full comedy of the narrative to be shaped in an immersive way it required a balance between all creatives; acting, visuals, sound and lighting needed to be in equal harmony, and this team can be very proud of what they achieved together. There was a thread of a joke that ran through the narrative as Conway fought to be recognised above the others; it was an intelligent nod to the fact that for the superb entirety to work there was no room for egos.
East Riding Theatre has gone from strength to strength since it opened its doors in 2013, but it still retains that sense of ‘family’, proud of its volunteers and its local supporters. Every show produced is exclusive to them and will not be touring elsewhere. The Hound of the Baskervilles was sponsored by The Beverley Arms, the programme was sponsored by local business Everything But The Dog, and before the performance the Mayor of Bridlington spoke of her pride in the theatre. Indeed, part of the delight of every new performance is catching up with everyone’s news.
In The Hound of the Baskervilles, ERT has brought a collective theatrical experience of the purest form that shows an ability to welcome public laughter and love being laughed at. It is much needed, and I can highly recommend.
‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ continues its run at Beverley’s East Riding Theatre until May 21st, 2022, and tickets can be booked via the theatre website
images: Gavin Prest Photography