Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 25 March 2014

A Study in Scarlet

Southwark Playhouse ⋄ 18th March - 12th April 2014

Book of Mormon.

Lauren Mooney

Yes, he’s had a resurgence recently – but just why exactly is everyone so keen to put Sherlock Holmes on stage? The wordy Conan Doyle stories don’t really lend themselves to the medium, as the latest crack of the whip, from Tacit Theatre Company, shows.

Their live music-filled, multi-roleing adaptation of the consulting detective’s very first outing, A Study in Scarlet, brings nothing new to the original material and makes a pretty poor fist of handling what they’ve already got. It seems an odd story to choose, for starters. Obviously it’s the one where we get to see Holmes meet his loyal Boswell, Doctor Watson, for the very first time – but that aside, it’s not one of Conan Doyle’s best or most memorable mysteries, with its rather purple Mormon-Romeo and Juliet sub-plot. It only really makes sense to stage A Study in Scarlet if what you’re most interested in is the burgeoning relationship between the two protagonists, and that doesn’t really seem to be the case here.

Co-adaptors Lila Whelan and Greg Freeman have pulled out the Mormon backstory and made it run concurrently with the action at 221B Baker Street, taking up an equal amount of stage time. There are some pretty thinly-sketched characters in the American sections – not exactly Whelan and Freeman’s fault, as this section in the novel is pretty underwhelming anyway, but it’s difficult to see why they’re given so much stage time here.

Back at Baker Street, things aren’t much more entertaining. Edward Cartwright as Watson does his stellar best with a script almost entirely lacking in nuance, even raising a few laughs; his Watson, though pretty lost in most conversations and consistently exasperated, is pleasingly un-bumbling, and the biggest shame here is that he’s given precious little to do. Meanwhile, Philip Benjamin as Holmes is a decent performer and a cracking violinist, but again is given little room to explore the role..

It seems to me that Holmes is first and foremost a fanatic, passionately devoted to developing one area of his mind and his life, and it’s hard to see that intensity here – Benjamin feels too everyman, too dashing, without that alien quality that makes Holmes able to do what he does. Although it’s nice that they steer away from the autistic/high functioning sociopath-style reading of the character, so popular in recent adaptations, the fact remains that this early incarnation of Holmes is monomaniacal enough to be able to forget that the earth goes round the sun if it suits his purpose – and you just don’t believe that here.

You could get away with most things, I suspect, if the rapport between Holmes and Watson were good enough, but even that is sadly lacking and ultimately, once we’ve made several trips to Utah, they have very little stage time together. There’s an attractive set and some enjoyable musical interludes, but it can’t alleviate the sense that this production is just a little un-loved, even by the people behind it. With dialogue that often fails to ring true, and direction from Nicholas Thompson that paints with very broad strokes, this Study is never offensively, properly bad, but it is bland and, worse, dull; all told, it feels like a long two hours.


Lauren Mooney

Lauren Mooney is a writer, producer and arts administrator based in London. As well as writing for Exeunt and The Stage, Lauren works at Clean Break and is the writer-producer for Kandinsky.

A Study in Scarlet Show Info

Produced by Tacit Theatre

Directed by Nicholas Thompson

Written by Arthur Conan Doyle, adapted by Lila Whelan and Greg Freeman

Cast includes Holly Ashton, Philip Benjamin, Edward Cartwright, Elliot Harper, Rhys King, Paul Lincoln, Stephanie Prior




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