Sherlock Holmes springs to life in strong stage adaptation in Portsmouth

The Sign of Four
The Sign of Four

REVIEW: The Sign of Four, New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth, until Saturday, November 17.

You couldn’t help wondering how on earth Blackeyed Theatre were going to turn a novel as dense and descriptive as The Sign of Four into a stage play.

Well, the answer is that they do so with invention, imagination and style on a night which gives an impressive sense of Conan Doyle’s second great Sherlock Holmes long player.

In truth, it doesn’t seem ideal that so much of the conclusion is a lengthy flashback, and there is a passage in the first half where the telling/showing balance tilts much too much in favour of the former – but maybe this simply underlines the scale of the task adapter Nick Lane faced and just how well he has done in every other respect.

He is helped considerably by Luke Barton and Joseph Derrington, the two working brilliantly well together to give a terrific account of that most contrasting of sleuthing archetypes, the great Sherlock Holmes and the man who allows him to soar, Dr John Watson.

Barton gives his Holmes indolence and restlessness, a faithful interpretation of Sherlock’s total intolerance of mental inactivity. He also conveys the alacrity with which Holmes springs to life once he has got the bit between his teeth. Derrington captures the long-suffering Watson, on the wrong end of countless sleights but ever game.

What makes this production so refreshing is that the two are delivered by such obviously young men – and it works exceedingly well as they plunge into the murkiest of tales, one rooted in stolen treasure, Indian uprising, convicts, betrayal and murder. Put it all together and it is more than enough to spark Holmes into action.

Nick Lane directs with just the right sense of pace for the most part, and an ingenious set takes us to India and back via the Thames. The supporting cast multi-role to great effect.

Maybe not all the problems of transferring the novel to the stage have been solved, but there is still plenty to admire on a night which brings the world’s greatest consulting detective back to Portsmouth.

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