STAGE REVIEW: Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four - Festival Theatre, Malvern, from Tuesday, May 14 to Saturday, May 18, 2019.

THE Blackeyed Theatre Company has produced a hugely enjoyable adaptation for the stage of this Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mystery.

In the years following The Yorkshire Playhouse 2005 presentation of John Buchan’s The Thirty Nine Steps, spoof adaptations of classic British novels using a small cast who take on a bewildering array of different characters has become a very successful theatrical genre indeed.

However, Nick Lane’s adaptation of this well-known story has taken this burgeoning tradition one step higher by remaining as close as possible to the characterisation and style of the original book; there is little here that is ‘spoof’ about it as the audience are led to appreciate the brilliance of Holmes’ deductive powers and Watson’s narrative skills, all the time being taken along with the unravelling storyline as it unfurls at breakneck speed.

The acting of the cast of six, playing a total of 16 roles between them is of the highest quality.

Luke Barton, in the lead role, plays a very young Holmes, extremely aware of his own abilities and shortcomings, his need for constant excitement or otherwise his descent into the black hole of drug addiction, and his inability to engage in the life of romance.

His diction is particularly sharp and his clipped tones certainly help the understanding of the hero’s superhuman brain.

Joseph Derrington, as Watson, also gives an assured performance easily switching in an instant from playing his part as an essential character within the action to directly addressing the audience as narrator. His developing love affair with the ‘maiden-in-distress’, Mary Marston, is charmingly played.

Of the rest of the cast, Christopher Glover effortlessly moves from the bumbling Scotland Yard detective, Athelney-Jones, to the Indian Servant Dost Akbar, while Zach Lee makes a splendid one-legged criminal Jonathan Small, managing to engage the audience’s sympathy at the same time as he reveals his murky and murderous past.

Ru Hamilton plays the traitorous and cowardly upper-class Major Sholto well, but I found his portrayal of his effete son disappointing as he tended to screech somewhat at his (numerous) times of panic. Consequently , the action lost meaning at crucial moments of revelation.

However, Stephanie Rutherford held her part well as the bewildered but strong-willed Mary in the face of danger, switching to the more down-to-earth Mrs Hudson with ease.

The evocative single set works very well, serving, among others, as the backdrop to Holmes’ study, a rumbling stagecoach, a speeding launch on the River Thames, to a fort at the time of The Indian Mutiny.

Changes of furniture are carried out by the cast themselves who also display their musical skills, providing an accompaniment that sets the tone of the scenes as they are presented to evince an atmosphere of excitement, danger or mystery. Zach Lee, especially, sets the mood with his acoustic guitar fingering.

There is humour and melodrama in plenty, too, especially in the baiting of the confused detective Athelney-Jones, and in the discovery of the body of Thaddeus Sholto’s murdered brother, Bartholomew, which is ‘imagined’ by the cast, and then stepped over by them theatrically as they approach the spot where he is supposedly spreadeagled, shot in the neck by a captive native from the Andeman Islands.

In the final scene, the story’s relevance to the faults of Britain’s racist imperial past are neatly worked into Jonathan Small’s recounting of the events that led up to murder and robbery.

It is clear that Conan Doyle’s work speaks well to modern audiences. This play is relevant and extremely well presented.

Hugely enjoyable, it is no parody like other works of its genre. And it made for a great evening out.