Arthur Conan Doyle’s sinister tale of a diabolical canine curse that claims the weakhearted Baskerville clan may not, on the face of it, seem conducive to a comical makeover. But that is exactly what it gets in Steven Canny and John Nicholson’s adaptation, originally created for the comedy theatre troupe Peepolykus in 2007.
Revived by Original Theatre Company and Bolton’s Octagon theatre, and filmed at the Belgrade theatre in Coventry earlier this year, it is as far removed from Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee’s terror-filled 1959 Hammer movie as could be, and yet its transformation works surprisingly well.
There is delightfully playful characterisation and good tweaks to the original plot. The play comes with meta-theatrical baubles too, the drama being self-consciously constructed by the actors on stage. This brings its own humour: at one point, the first half is quickly recapped after the actors apparently receive a hostile tweet during the interval.
The play within a play elements are funny but sometimes protracted and in these instances it feels as if the drama is indulging in its own ingenuity. At almost two hours, the meta comedy comes to feel a little repetitive and circuitous.
There is the added novelty of a cast of just three, which comes with some very nifty costume changes. Part of the joy of this production is the energy and agility that the actors bring. Jake Ferretti is a tongue-in-cheek Sherlock Holmes, Serena Manteghi plays Sir Henry Baskerville as her main role and Niall Ransome is Dr Watson, though all three double and triple-up as every other character in the story. Each is charming and characterful in a different way, with Manteghi taking on an extraordinary number of smaller roles and bringing physical comedy to them all.
Dynamically directed by Tim Jackson, there are minimal props and the sound design by Andy Graham builds the scene and atmosphere instead, with the growls of an off stage hound alongside the clop of horses, birdsong and other sound effects.
The comedy drains the story of its terror and tension, instead bringing warmth and gentle laughs, but also some slower moments. The actors maintain their energy until the end, though, and the show bursts with imagination, intelligence and twinkling irreverence. There is no recourse to cliche either; we never hear the words “Elementary, my dear Watson” – all for the better.