Tuesday, 1 June 2021

REVIEW: The Hound of the Baskervilles at the Watermill Theatre

When we first saw this show in the August 2020 sunshine it was our first live show after the first lockdown and its celebration of that fact with plenty of jokes about social distancing, face coverings and anti-bac sprays was the secret weapon in an energetic and lively production. It had the feel of an improvised melodramatic pantomime that might have been part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Its quick revival as the opening show in the 2021 summer season is a bold move but the feel was very different on a cold damp May evening with only half the audience tables filled. As live Theatre emerges from the third lockdown, nine months after its first outing the Covid jokes feel less fresh, and the spontaneity feels more laboured.

Abigail Pickard Price's adaptation of the Arthur Conan Doyle story of The Hound of the Baskervilles 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. This version is staged on the front lawn and the Watermill itself provides an attractive backdrop to the production.

They parody Boris Johnson’s instructions to Stay Alert, Control the Stage and Save the Watermill and constantly work within a social distanced grid laid out on the temporary stage. The development of the show finds some creative comic solutions to showing train, taxi and pony and trap journeys, to looking out of windows or at portraits in the house and to avoiding physical contact or passing props between characters. 

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 Roxanna Bartle as Miss Watson, the narrator of much of the story, and Rosalind Lailey as Holmes, with James Mack starting as Sir Henry. Characters are defined by a hat and jacket and played by whichever actor happens to be free at that moment. When Mack portrays a dinner between Stapleton and Sir Henry the conversation is depicted by a simple switch of hats reminiscent of a Tommy Copper sketch.

The running time including interval is still only around 90 minutes, and although it remains a fun and silly entertainment the repeated gags like the hounds baying sound and the breaking of the fourth wall including refereeing to each other occasionally by their actual names felt more laboured on second viewing. Yet one wants to like the show and admire the energy and effort in presenting it in the drizzle.

The Watermill under Paul Hart's leadership continues to set high standards and show what can be achieved on limited budgets and constrained audience sizes. I look forward to seeing what the rest of the season brings with As you like it and a staged concert of Just So and hope as the weather improves their outdoor season and it proves a success. If you missed Hound of Baskerville, the first time around it is still worth a trip along the M4 to see it.

Review by Nick Wayne

Rating: ★★★

Price of Ticket: £25
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