Recently my theatre trips have been about new writing. so it’s been a while since I’ve watched an adaptation of a familiar story. When I sit down to The Hound of the Baskervilles, bitty prior knowledge of Arthur Conan-Doyle whips through my consciousness. I’ve never read the book. Or have I? I think I started it once. Does my dad have a copy? Wait! We watched it at Christmas. Was it the series with Benedict Cumberbatch? I don’t think so. Something else. Then the performance begins and I know one thing for sure. I’ve never known Sherlock to have a Geordie accent. And it’s proper mint.
Northern Stage’s NORTH programme supports the development of actors in the region. As well as actor training, NORTH includes the staging and touring of a small scale production. Last spring offered an ambitious reworking of The War of The Worlds by H.G. Wells and this season they’re taking on the classic tale of The Hound of the Baskervilles, adapted by Douglas Maxwell. Through the atmospheric fog, we’re introduced to a drunk and dysfunctional Sherlock Holmes (James Gladden) and a wrangling Dr Watson (Jake Wilson Craw trying to keep him on task. The occasional stumble over the odd line can be overlooked given the verbosity of the dense dialogue which is delivered at pace. An unpredictable, and kind of petulant, Holmes seems to be a law unto himself. Both Gladden and Wilson Craw convincingly portray the shifting dynamics of push-and-pull between the two men; they have good chemistry together.
As the play continues, it becomes clear that the mystery of the hound is secondary to the human drama. Gradually we’re introduced to a host of eccentric characters, each with their own sinister edges. Three of the four cast play multiple roles, bringing something new to their individual performances. Rebecca Tebbett’s Henry Baskerville is naively confident and seemingly blind to the potential danger that lies ahead. Tebbett also plays Miss Stapleton and Laura Lyons. Siobhan Stanley as the achingly posh Dr Mortimor encourages some laughs from the audience in contrast to her sensitive performance as Mrs Franland. James Gladden tackles the most roles tackling Holmes as well as Mr Stapleton, Barrymore and the soldier. Thanks to the skill of the actors and Jake Smith’s competent direction, it’s easy to suspend disbelief during the transition between characters. At times The Hound of the Baskervilles leans knowingly into farce without giving way to the ridiculous. These moments of humour rarely undercut the sinister mood of the piece.
When the devil dog that stalks the moor does appear it’s genuinely scary. So often when monsters finally materialise after a painstaking wait, it’s anticlimactic and disappointing. The tension is the thing! However, Amy Watt’s set design serves the production well. We see the hound through a diaphanous screen that glows red like the mouth of hell. It’s effective and consistent with the underlying sense of foreboding that’s threaded throughout the play. Feelings of dread are enhanced by the eerie sound and light design (Jeremy Bradfield and Michael Morgan respectively). In the centre of a stage is a table, used as a platform for the actors to clamber on and over and under. On top is a model replica of the manor that points to what’s at stake, the Baskerville fortune. As the action plays out around the dollhouse structure, I’m reminded of the importance of the landscape. The manor and the surrounding moor feels like a threatening character in its own right. Nothing is a match for Holmes’ sharp intellect. He seems invincible until (spoilers!) he’s trapped in quicksand and the ground attempts to swallow him up.
For a tale full of suspense, there is nothing wildly unexpected here. However, with its awareness and sensitivity to previous adaptations, this version of The Hound of The Baskervilles presents a playful, regional take on a well-known Conan-Doyle classic. I think of all of the possible reimaginings, a Sherlock Holmes from the North East is by far my favourite.
The Hound of the Baskervilles runs at Northern Stage until 23 September 2019, and then tours until 9 November. More info here.