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Sherlock Holmes: The Valley of Fear at Greenwich Theatre

The last in the Sherlock Holmes novel, The Valley of Fear, is adapted in an ambitious production – the general reaction immediately after the show from other patrons at the performance I attended was that it was rather complicated, with a couple of fellow theatregoers musing that perhaps having prior knowledge of the novel would have aided understanding. But shows shouldn’t, ideally, be like that, because it means the show isn’t as accessible as it could be. “I didn’t get the Moriarty bit,” said one gentleman. Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts might well agree: as I understand it, Professor Moriarty (Gavin Molloy) is only spoken about, rather than a character that makes an appearance. To be frank, ‘the Moriarty bit’ doesn’t add much to proceedings and could be removed without consequence.

Sherlock Holmes: The Valley of Fear. Credit Alex Harvey Brown.
Sherlock Holmes: The Valley of Fear. Credit Alex Harvey Brown.

There’s a dual narrative going on, one at Birlstone Manor House, somewhere in Sussex, in 1915, where someone has been “horribly murdered”, and another, in 1875, in “the coal-rich state of Pennsylvania”. The show’s programme explains the artistic decision to run the two narratives side-by-side, but nonetheless, the result is rather disorienting as the show time-hops between generations and continents. I could live with the questionable American accents – they were, at least, sufficiently distinct from the British ones – but trying to relate what happened a generation ago with events in the ‘present day’ involved work. This isn’t the sort of show that one can simply sit back, relax and enjoy.

That isn’t to say it isn’t enjoyable in the first place – when the show reaches its crescendo and Holmes (Luke Barton) reveals his findings, it’s not a conclusion I could have foreseen. The narrative is laden, arguably over-laden even, with details about various characters, not all of which (perhaps inevitably) are essential to solving the case. It’s part of the beauty of watching the performance, but it’s also part of the frustration, because the audience has invested time and effort into observing events and recollections of events only to discover there are, probably, more dead ends than useful ones.

Barton’s Sherlock Holmes can be enigmatic when he wants to be – even his trusted friend and assistant, Dr John Watson (Joseph Derrington), has to ask repeatedly for clarification on a certain point, and Watson is the polar opposite of dim-witted. But there are regular portrayals of what come across as a frantically busy mind at work, even if, taken literally, he appears to be resorting to and/or relying on prayer and meditation for inspiration.

A hard-working cast of five bring twenty-two characters between them to life, and the set (Victoria Spearing) almost remarkably remains unchanged throughout, with patterned walls serving as backdrops to Holmes’ famed Baker Street home, the stately Birlstone Manor House, and miscellaneous places in America. It is too harsh to say that when Watson finds himself nodding off, one is tempted to do the same. But it is a rather intense and exhausting experience, and it takes some effort to fully appreciate the sprawling narrative.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

A mysterious, coded message is received, a warning of imminent danger, drawing Sherlock Holmes and the faithful Dr Watson into a tale of intrigue and murder stretching from 221B Baker Street to an ancient moated manor house to the bleak Pennsylvanian Vermissa Valley. Faced with a trail of bewildering clues, Holmes begins to unearth a darker, wider web of corruption, a secret society and the sinister work of one Professor Moriarty.

Directed by Nick Lane
Music by Tristan Parkes
Set Design by Victoria Spearing
Costume design by Naomi Gibbs

Presented by Blackeyed Theatre, in association with South Hill Park
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Adapted for the stage by Nick Lane

21 September-24 September 2022

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