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Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four (Susan Elkin reviews)

By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Adapted for the Stage by Nick Lane. Music composed by Tristan Parkes. Produced in association with New Theatre Royal Portsmouth and South Hill Park Arts Centre
society/company: Blackeyed Theatre Ltd. (professional)(directory)
performance date: 18 Sep 2018
venue: EM Forster Theatre, Tonbridge, Kent


Nick Lane’s adaptation and direction of Conan Doyle’s 1890 novel tells the story pretty fully and faithfully and showcases a talented cast of six, most of them accomplished actor-musicians.

The problem with adapting Conan Doyle (not, it has to be admitted my favourite author) is that the plots are so complicated that there is a danger of becoming wordy and this show suffers from too much exposition and not enough action in the first half. It hots up after the interval, though.

Commendably, Lane never lets us forget that the novels and stories are narrated by Watson. Joseph Derrington finds plenty of colour in the role and his coyness in courting Mary Morstan (Stephanie Rutherford) is nicely caught. From time to time the script takes him, for a few lines, into narration rather than dialogue which works quite well.

As Holmes, Luke Barton has a distinctive stage presence with the right balance between tiresome intelligence, serious diligence and ennui. He reminded me at times both of Kenneth Branagh and Alex Jennings as young actors.

There’s strong work from Rutherford in all the female roles, especially Mary Morstan whose presence is stepped up in this adaptation. She conveys a feisty character and when she finally succumbs to Watson’s wooing you know that this won’t be a very patriarchal marriage A very versatile performer, Rutherford also brings impressive accent work to various servant roles as well as playing trombone, violin and several other instruments in the music (written by Tristan Parkes) which provides atmosphere almost continuously.

Christopher Glover is especially good – and funny – as the policeman, Athelney Jones, Ru Hamilton does well as the effete, camp Thaddeus Sholto and Zach Lee, playing Jonathan Small, makes a cumbersomely long monologue at the end, work surprisingly well. All three play instruments and there’s much ensemble work in which other characters are played – sometimes a little confusingly.

Victoria Spearing’s ingenious set comprises narrow geometric, scaffolding-like shapes which loosely connote a timeless London skyline. Sometimes it is part-dismantled to create something else such as the boat for the river chase.

A good introduction to Conan Doyle, I think for the dozens of early teenagers who had been brought to this production (the EM Forster theatre is part of Tonbridge School) and seemed riveted by it.

First published by Sardines:
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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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