The Sign of Four, Greenwich Theatre

Nick Lane’s bright and breezy adaptation of Conan Doyle’s oft adapted Sherlock Holmes story gives the frustrated Sherlockian everything they could ask for in an evening – namely a 7% sleuthing solution to the eyes, and a few things they didn’t ask for but work well in the context of this particular mystery.

Lane, as is his wont, revises the text. As those that saw his Jekyll and Hyde will attest, he’s keen, with Holmesian zeal, to add contemporary touches to the stories that inspire him. You can choose to read this as vandalism in the tradition of those 18th century playwrights that rewrote Shakespeare to make him more palatable to contemporary audiences, or as fashionable neo-Victorianism; a case of never mind the anachronisms, feel the period atmosphere.

There’s plenty of the latter, thanks to the sprightly players having fun with their Victorian personas, and some eye catching costume design. The score, played off stage by the supporting cast – a fugue of Lancastrian brass and Indian classical, leitmotifs for some of the story’s most important characters (though curiously little violin for Mr Holmes), is in tune with the play’s fusion aesthetic. A Meccano set with notes of Raj architecture, is plausibly recombined to pass for the interior of colonially inspired London homes. Both serve the production’s playful eccentricity. Being able to see through the set to the players is a regret, however, as Holmes taking a swig of Evian between scenes somewhat breaks the spell. But those who take seats stage left or right will, assuming they’re inclined to notice at all, notice less.

This production’s main point of differentiation is its critique of Empire, and imperial attitudes to some of the Queen’s more reluctant subjects. Giving the Indian characters agency and sketching in the politics of occupation feels congruous because it’s in keeping with Holmes’ scientific conception of human nature; his understanding of how society works, without the interests that blind lesser men, the key to his ability to look through the fog to the truth. I believed Holmes would pick up Sholto on his attitude to his Indian servant, because it would both offend his sense of natural justice and allow him to test the character’s temperament and prejudices – potentially important information.

As a Conan Doyle purist I worried Luke Barton and Joseph Derrington might be too young to play Holmes and Watson, but they make an engaging and energetic pair – the former playing it straight with a hint of mischief, the latter a patient and articulate foil. They contribute to a production that captures the essence and texture of Doyle’s story, shorn of some of the horror elements that might have made it less palatable to younger audiences. This is a family friendly Holmes everyone can enjoy.

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