This review will consider Christopher Cutting’s play, The Accidental Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, directed originally by Anna Marshall, produced by Tobacco Tea Theatre Company and staged at White Bear Theatre.
I will start with the mise-en-scène and the use of props. I felt that the props were extremely overused and cluttered the stage, particularly in transitions. Whilst this did add to the farcical madness of the performance, it felt that most of the props were unnecessary and used simply for comedic effect. The initial set comprised an armchair Upstage Left next to which sat a stuffed dog; a small serving cart Downstage Left labelled ‘Orchestra Pit’ on which sat various paraphernalia: tiny shoes, a tiny door and frame, a lidless box of what seemed to be wooden beads or husks, a service bell, and many others; and, finally, a coffee table Upstage Right with various obstacles on top of that as well. Whilst minimal in terms of stage proximity, these properties seemed cluttered and abundant.
In the opening scene, Sophie Milnes (playing Dr John Watson, amongst other roles) and Joshua Phillips (playing Professor Moriarty, amongst other roles) bring the ‘Orchestra Pit’ serving cart Centerstage. After a slight tension between the two, over the precise placement of the cart — something I will return to later — the two sit and begin to ‘mime’ along to an audio clip, using the tiny shoes to mimic the sound of footsteps, opening and closing the tiny door to mimic the sound of a door opening and closing…we see where I’m going with this. It was extremely literal. But the most frustrating of these actions was the mime of thunder. Phillips lifts a small box which has ‘thunder’ written on it; Milnes lifts and drops the wooden beads from and into the lidless box; then an audio clip of thunder and rain…it was just simply too overdone for me. It would have been a million times more effective to do one of two simple things: perform a visual scape which alluded to the actions the two performers were attempting to mime, i.e. the simple use of the tiny shoes, the opening/closing of the tiny door; or a soundscape in darkness. Both permit the audience to use their imagination, and this makes the action — or audio — endearing and captivating. What is the point of suggesting or conveying the idea of thunder whilst simultaneously and literally producing it? If props are to be used in this way, one must consider their significance; if they are not a crucial element on which the entire performance’s aesthetic or practicality pivots, they are absolutely unnecessary.
It was decisions like these, repeated throughout the performance, that made it difficult to really engage with the material. Every two seconds, a joke was implanted, something ‘went wrong’, a prop was flown across the stage. The play was definitely lively and melodramatic, but not in an intriguing or useful way.
I mentioned a tension between the two ‘characters’ at the beginning of the performance. In this play, there were continuous slapstick tensions between the characters that seemed to come from nowhere, particularly during transitions — which, again, were very cluttered and uneasy on the eye, not to mention rather bipartite with the repeated action of lifting a leg in a readied, hero-like stance before the music starts and the transition begins. From the very beginning where a tension arises from the placement of the serving cart and from one ‘character”s use of hands to mimic the mouths of people talking on the audio clip, to moments in transitions where Holmes (Jasmine Atkins-Smart) and Dr Watson are scrambling over props; all seemed too mismatched. One minute, Dr Watson enthuses Holmes and the two have reached a joint understanding; and the next, they’re fighting over a piece of paper and grunting at one another in a display of uneasy melodrama.
This confusion was also reflected in the plot itself. The major difficulty for me as an audience member and, judging by their restlessness and the looks on their faces, for other audience members too, was transitioning from the ‘comedy’ of the former part of the play to the ‘seriousness’ of the latter part where Moriarty has captured Dr Watson. Suddenly, everything is severe; there are no jokes or melodramatic tendencies, and this felt off-putting, almost — and not in a well-thought-out and dramatic way. Then, the two seductively bite into a sausage, and a poorly crafted jacket with ‘dynamite’ strapped to it is launched at Dr Watson. It was hard to take this scene seriously, as per all the scenes, but it was so clear that this plot development aimed, for some reason, towards a more dramatic stance, which contrasted uncomfortably with the performance’s style up to that moment.
It was also difficult to keep up with the plot due to the sheer multitude of ‘plot twists’. Towards the latter half of the play, a plot twist arose in practically every scene, and, having not been permitted to really engage with the material in the first place, these plot twists had little to no effect — other than confusing me. Then, there was a sense of metatheatre (that the production has prided itself on) caused by the revelation that certain characters had pretended to be other characters, where, in real life, they had multi-roled. Whilst this was quite comical, it made it incredibly difficult, especially with the last plot twist at the end, orchestrated by Dr Watson, to work out if this play wished to be comedic, serious or dramatic, or to laugh metatheatrically at itself. A sense of metatheatre was also reached in Holmes and Watsons’s direct audience address when speaking of the ‘link between knees and crime’. If the audience are included in this way, it should be a repeated element, crucial to the performance, and not just a one-off occurrence; if not, how does this fit in with the otherwise removed performance style. In short, the style was unbelievably confused. In fact, it claimed to be performed in a “Lecoq style”. I can’t begin to fathom where Lecoq’s influences lie in this performance. No elements of this play were relatable to his pedagogy, ideology or theatrical practice at all. Only a mere homage to mimetic abstraction was present; nothing that screamed “Lecoq!”
The comedy itself in this play was very overplayed and lacklustre, from the puns of ‘tripping into the kitchen’ likened to ‘tripping’ on drugs, to the overplay on props, to the slapstick deaths, tensions and mishaps. And this undeniably showed in many audience members who became visibly restless and daydreamy.
As for characterisation, I have very little to say. It did feel that without the moustaches, skirts and other costume elements, it would have been more difficult to engage with the performers. I felt that the drawn moustaches and poor-quality props were an unbudging ode to a school performance as opposed to the craft of budding theatremakers. Whilst poor-quality or minimalist items in the theatre can, of course, enhance the world of a certain performance, here these just served as a reminder of the play’s poor-quality theatrical decisions. All actors performed with energy, this is true, particularly Phillips who seemed to have a higher transformativity than the other two, if still rusty in places. Still, none were particularly astonishing, although I do feel the mixed style, writing and directorial decisions had a part to play in this.
I will conclude with the writing. Whilst it was clear that the writer had certainly done an amount of research in writing this play, with particular terminologies and a peculiar lexical field, ordinary elements such as performance style, plot development and profound character identity were completely absent. It never felt for one moment as though a veritable story of Sherlock Holmes; rather, the extension of an exciting name attributed to a confused story about a babbling detective and his sneaky companion. The story was playful, yes, but not by any means in a beguiling and delightful way.
“A performance with a confused and lacklustre style. Over-playful and unrefined.”