THE SIGN OF FOUR AT THE MUMFORD THEATRE
Adapting a Sherlock Holmes story is never going to be easy. Conan Doyle’s plots are always dense with detail revealing the meticulous landscape of the great detective’s well-stocked mind of hard fact and the minutiae of clues. Black Eyed Theatre’s production of ‘The Sign of Four’ at the Mumford did the job but you needed patience to see it through to the denouement.
Partly narrated by the character of Dr Watson, long speeches set out the facts behind this twisted tale of buried treasures of India, missing persons, dastardly murder, hissing snakes and oriental mysteries. There is so much to get through and the pace leisurely so it’s not surprising that the whole evening lasts nigh on three hours. It is though time well spent. The production was a delightful trove of theatrical chicanery and top-drawer acting. It also looked quite beautiful with its blood red drapes subtly lit to suggest an Indian twilight, Moghul kiosks and oriental columns rearranged to convey everything from a Thames quayside to the Agra Fort. There was a rich use of sound – mostly of sub-continental hue and most of the six actors played live instruments – fiddle, guitar, flute and brass creating an edgy dissonance reflecting the uncomfortable story of colonial misdoings during the ill-fated 1857 mutiny against British rule.
Luke Barton’s Sherlock – young, square jawed, more Bulldog Drummond than Benedict Cumberbach (and not a deerstalker in sight) – drew on Conan Doyle’s original concept of Holmes as the cold fish, drug-dependent genius. Joseph Derrington created a perfect foil as Watson – here an amiable gent and oft reluctant sidekick. The other four members of the cast shone in a variety of contrasting characters. I was particular taken by Ru Hamilton who, amongst other parts, did a quite brilliant job on the outrageously camp Thaddeus Sholto (what a name!). He has a wonderful face for comic theatre – part Stan Laurel, part Gene Wilder – agents please note: here surely is the next Leo Bloom in Mel Brooks’ The Producers.
Black Eyed Theatre took on a formidable challenge in staging this famous but intricate story. In respecting Conan Doyle’s Victorian world of Empire, it perfectly captured what is essentially a tale to be read; they pulled off a hugely satisfying transition on to the stage. Not easy; certainly not elementary my dear Watson.