Sherlock Holmes : The Valley of Fear

Reviewer's rating

Based upon one of Conan Doyle’s four full-length books featuring the world’s most famous sleuth, this adaptation is an ambitious project.  There are actually two separate stories, one of which follows the more familiar pattern of a gruesome murder in the Home Counties. At the same time, the other is set in the industrial North-East of the United States at a time of great unrest.  The coal miners were agitating against the mine-owners and were organised by the ‘Molly Malones’, a sort of Irish hybrid of the Mafia and the Freemasons.  The Pinkerton Detective Agency, hired by the industrialists, managed to infiltrate this organisation and bring about its downfall.

The two stories are connected, but one precedes the other chronologically by quite a few years.  The challenge for the audience in this adaptation is that scenes from one story are interspersed with scenes from the other, so one has to sit up and pay attention in order to follow the action.  And still more so, in order to follow the chain of Holmes’ deductive (or inductive) reasoning.  That said, many theatergoers enjoy exercising their brains with a good murder mystery.  Agatha Christie is always being revived (though The Mousetrap needs no revival).  There is plenty to exercise one’s brains in this production too.

It is also remarkable for the economy and ingenuity with which, along with atmospheric music, a bare minimum of stage properties is used to conjure up the sitting room in 221B Baker Street, a compartment in a railway carriage or an art gallery in which the painting is viewed is invisible to the audience.  Even more remarkable are the skill and flexibility of the cast.  An ensemble of four actors and one actress (if one can still say that) each play up to six different characters, as well as moving the props for the scene changes.  That they play these different roles convincingly is a tribute to the rigour and dedication underpinning Blackeyed Theatre’s mission to take good plays to a countrywide audience.

Of course, central to the whole thing is the pairing of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.  In recent times the tendency has been to focus on the physicality of Sherlock, and here Luke Barton is more in the Benedict Cumberbatch vein than Carleton Hobbs.  Joseph Derrington is a more traditional Dr. Watson in appearance, but here he becomes more assertive, less content to play the faithful amanuensis.  Indeed, as he taps away at the keyboard of an antique typewriter, we appreciate that, without him, who would ever have heard of Sherlock Holmes?