Monday, 10 August 2020

REVIEW: The Hound of the Baskervilles at The Watermill Theatre

It was, as always, a delight to travel down the M4 to the wonderful Watermill Theatre near Newbury to see Abigail Pickard Price's post-Covid adaptation of the Arthur Conan Doyle story of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Of course, the experience was very different from my last theatre visit to see Quality Street at the historical theatre in Bury St Edmunds on March 12th. Part of the joy of the show is the celebration of being back watching live theatre, and the audience and the cast enjoy plenty of jokes about social distancing, face coverings and anti-bac sprays. This sets the tone of the show, a melodramatic Pantomime which uses the original novel as a launchpad for a riotous three-handed dash around the Dorset, sorry Devon, moors in search of the Hound which as one character says would have Conan Doyle spinning in his grave! 

Pickard Price, as an associate director of the Watermill, has directed several shows over the years at the venue and is used to working within the limits of the small venue but on this occasion she has worked with no set, props from stock, and apparently only four days of rehearsal. The limits of the production constraints show, a bit like an Edinburgh Fringe show but that is part of its charm. The outside setting with the audience seated at tables of four seats adds to the fun as the cast move amongst them and applaud themselves on and off stage as they run to and from the usual dressing rooms.

The story features a multitude of quirky oddball characters inhabiting the Gothic Baskerville Hall and the surrounding areas including Sir Henry, Beryl and Jack Stapleton, a convict Seldon, the butler Barrymore, locals Mortimer and Laura, and of course the glowing Hound. With just three actors to play the roles the necessity of doubling up on roles becomes part of the comedy and they revel in switching characters and sexes. Indeed the only two constants are Victoria Blunt as Miss Watson, the narrator of much of the story, and Rosalind Lailey as Holmes, with James Mack starting as Sir Henry. In the warm sun of the outdoor stage, their energetic and committed performances are to be admired.

Victoria Blunt's comic ability is already known to the Watermill audiences as she gave them her Gender-bending Bottom in Midsummer Night's Dream earlier this year. She was also Malcolm in the 2019 production of Macbeth. James Mack has also appeared there too in an excellent adaption of The Rivals in 2018. They make a great team with Lailey and because of the multiple parts are rarely off stage (just an occasional quick change in the bushes). 

The running time including interval is only 90 minutes but it is fun, silly and highly
entertaining and a celebration of both live theatre and the creativity of Watermill in reopening in a safe and enjoyable way. When the short-run went on sale to the public, the 25 tables for each performance sold out within 20 minutes but additional matinees have now been added later in the summer when a concert version of Camelot plays the outdoor stage.

Paul Hart's leadership of the venue continues to set high standards and shows what can be achieved on limited budgets and constrained audience sizes. It deserves every success and many other larger subsidised companies and regional theatres should look to this model when they reopen to create quality productions on smaller budgets and capable of operating successfully on smaller audiences. 

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★

Seat: Table 10 | Price of Ticket: £120 for the table
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