Although more people read Agatha Christie than they do Conan Doyle, it is his creation that is the most renowned fictional detective in the world. We like Holmes for his cleverness, his disdain of ordinariness and the useless knowledge with which we mostly pack our lives. We like him too for his darker side: his knowledge of the under-world, and his need to live so much in his head because the outside world seems often a sham, and not a little boring too boot. To stave off this view of inanity, he takes cocaine.
Conan Doyle’s detective, following Wilkie Collins’ master detective, is not an intuitive thinker but a deductive one. The Sherlock Holmes’ stories wonderfully mix action with reflection. The major flaw in ‘The final revelation of Sherlock Holmes’ to my mind then, is that it is only ruminative; there is no action. For the premise -a play as a think piece – to work, the thinking has to be of a higher order than it is here.
The play, a Fringe First winner in the 1980s, opens with Watson talking to Holmes about the near ruinous financial situation they are in. Several minutes later, in walks Holmes to reveal that the Holmes Watson thought he was talking to is infact, a stuffed pillow. One hopes this is merely a false start, and that the play will soon right itself. But it never quite does, despite several good jokes – mostly, admittedly, around the possibility of Holmes and Watson being gay.
Norton’s Holmes is a despondent man, pumping himself with increasingly greater doses of cocaine because he lives to be challenged and now finds the world an unchallenging place. This is an interesting idea but it belly-flops because Holmes’ most distinctive quality is the energy of his mind and his body. He is a man on the brink of sinking who always pulls himself up with a sheer force of will. And this is part of what makes watching him so fascinating. Without that vitality, this Holmes is a flat character and something the ‘real’ Holmes would have abhorred: a rather tedious man. Watson is more Hausfrau than the colleague whose medical knowledge often served Holmes so well. When not nagging, he is servile.
There have been some great Holmes and Watsons on both film (Rathbone and Bruce) and TV (Brett and Burke). This present duo is not a good coupling. Watson is played as a rather bluff type. Even if he doesn’t actually come out and say, ‘Yes, dear chap’ and ‘Jolly good show’ there is something in his tone which suggests that such terms are within spitting range. But of the two, his is the more confidently acted part.
Since the play is set towards the end of Holmes’ and Watsons’ careers, the choice of actors-who are both young and young looking – seems a strange casting/directing decision.
As for the denouement: we’ve worked it out far ahead of Watson, and from that point on, it is a long crawl to the play’s end.
It feels somewhat ungracious to come out of a play and find that the only positive thing one has to say is about the set, but that, unfortunately, is how it is. The set is good; everything else, quite laborious.