Amateur dramatics has a variety of purposes. For much of Durham, it is to recreate fantastic scripts which allow students to access ideas they couldn’t afford to otherwise. For some of Durham, it is an opportunity to demonstrate their developing acting skills which students are hoping to make a career out of after university. But sometimes, it is just a chance to have a go at something fun and create a great team spirit in the process. For Suffragette Theatre Company, you get the feeling that the actual performance is secondary to the experience. They only do one performance, and as a Josephine Butler society, most of the audience have come along just to see their friends do something different. And what is so wrong with that?
the actual performance is secondary to the experience
‘Hound of the Baskervilles’ is an odd choice. The problem with Cumberbatch and Law rebooting the genre is that our expectations can now be set woefully high – we want more than just a standard retelling.
The STC cast have learnt their lines and dressed appropriately. We understand their budget is low, and the few props they do use are comically tacky. The lighting is basically just one on/off switch, but this doesn’t prevent their lighting technician from jumping to their role with vigour, and we are treated to so many blackouts at times it feels like a strobe show. There’s a sign on the door on the way in that reminds users of the hall to not overrun their time slot, and this may have been taken as the chief artistic decision for the entire show.
Much of the drama is described in extensive narration, which requires an eloquence and confidence which could be present; if only the actors had been allowed to slow down and think about what they were saying. So much of the great Holmes-Watson banter and mirth was lost in a mumbled ramble that left the audience quite clueless as to what was occurring – the lack of any set design meant that the dialogue should have been given more importance, but instead we struggled to follow the ceaseless pace.
The original nineteenth-century characters of Holmes and Watson are now quite outdated, so can either be modernised or appreciated with irony. When Watson is told of two murders, his response of “ripping good tale aye” should be taken as comical, or understood wryly, but instead the actors nod wisely and we have yet another blackout, with no time for comedy. There are many instances where the characters could address the audience, but there is no direction, so confident eye-contact is never attempted, and subsequently the audience’s mind wanders. Some basic acting coaching would have been useful. If smoking a pipe, there should be some attempt to understand what a pipe is and how lungs work. When entering a stage, it’s good to be in character the whole time you are on stage.
the audience’s mind wanders
There are moments of engagement scattered throughout the play. Jake, who plays Frankman, uses great physicality and an engaging accent. Abbah as Hugh Baskerville flies into some tremendous furies, and in the few opportunities he takes to pause, we see glimpses of an interesting character. Kamil does seem an apt choice to perform Sherlock Holmes and demonstrates his character’s roving mind and excitement well. Doctor Watson’s performance by Hannah is continually perplexed, and there are moments of humour – she propels the play forwards with relentless energy. The reserved nature of Shaun’s James Mortimer is well-cast. With a little more direction, the actors could have commanded their space. Rather than remaining seated at a table for long stretches of time, Suffragette Theatre Company could have employed the entire room they were in to create some sense of mystery. Instead, they relied upon overly amplified sound effects and clumsy transitions that contributed to the feeling that they had just run out of time to make a good play.
With a little more direction, the actors could have commanded their space
It’s nice to see a less serious, less competitive bit of acting in the Durham scene. Theatre should be accessible for all, but this performance was frustratingly close to being good. It’s summative season, and from a creative perspective ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ was lacklustre. I would like to see any of the cast performing again but need their talents to be better understood and harnessed. Should they attempt any other play, I am sure it would be a different experience. Sherlock Holmes is a great starting point but needs inspiration and an appreciation of the past century of performance tradition that you are building upon.