Did you ever get an essay handed back to you at school with the words ‘could do better’ written on it in red pen? Well, that’s exactly what I wanted to scrawl all over this new production by Peepolykus. Not on the actors, you understand, that would be rude and quite difficult to do, but hopefully you get my point. It wasn’t that the show was particularly bad; it just could have been a far more enjoyable and satisfying affair if the people involved had invested in it a little more thought and time.
I should probably backtrack a bit at this point: Peepolykus are a three-man theatre company of some repute and their current work is a spoof version of Arthur Conan-Doyle’s The Hound Of The Baskervilles in which they play all the roles themselves. It opened last year at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and gained sufficiently good reviews to warrant a West End transfer.
Though they stick to Doyle’s plot, with Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson investigating the death of Sir Charles Baskerville in mysterious and perhaps supernatural circumstances out on Dartmoor, they do so in the loosest of fashions. The mechanics of the story are there purely to allow for a lot of frantic costume swapping, dashing about, and some rather laboured puncturing of the fourth wall (the houselights are frequently brought up so the cast can talk directly to the audience).
Spanish actor Javier Marzan gets to play Holmes and there is something quite amusing about having this iconic character played with a thick Spanish accent. John Nicholson plays Watson and Jason Thorpe plays Henry the Canadian heir to the Baskerville fortune (though conversely without the Canadian accent, because he “can’t do one.”) The remaining minor characters are divided up between them. Yet though the show is performed with amiable school-boyish energy throughout, one can’t help feeling that this kind of thing has been done better elsewhere.
The show that springs most immediately to mind is the current production of The 39 Steps at the Criterion>. In this, John Buchan’s well-known novel is staged with a four-man cast assuming all the roles, but it’s done with a level of invention, deceptively sharp choreography and a reverence for the text that the Peepolykus show lacks completely.
The humour is often lazy and the jokes that do work are flogged to death. Admittedly the audience were laughing at this, and with much gusto, but their response seemed oddly disproportionate to the Sixth Form skit material being carried out on stage, and I suspect there was an element of first night frenzy at work.
After the interval the cast performed a brief reprise of the first-half, a fast-paced sequence that was slickly handled and genuinely funny, hinting at what could have been achieved with a little more tightening of the script and the direction. But unfortunately it never came up with anything quite so entertaining again and I was left with a hollow, is-that-it-then? feeling at the end of its (too long) two and bit hours.