The game is afoot. After the success of their 2018/19 international tour of The Sign of Four, Blackeyed Theatre, in association with South Hill Parks Arts Centre, return to the scene of the crime (or, more accurately, a totally new crime scene) with another Sherlock Holmes adaptation. This time it’s the fourth and final full-length Holmes novel, The Valley of Fear. The production is currently on a tour of the UK, with the closest stop to 221B Baker Street being Greenwich Theatre. Mummy and Crotchet headed along to the press performance to see whether the dynamic duo could crack the case of a murdered man and a secret society.
Adapted and directed by Nick Lane, The Valley of Fear is not a Holmes story that you are likely to have seen on stage before, and presented the creative team with an interesting challenge given the structure of the original novel, which is split into two distinct parts, only the first of which features the classic whodunnit that you will probably be expecting. The second part, which is actually longer than the first, is the backstory of the characters who eventually find themselves the subject of Holmes’ investigation. The play takes the two very distinct stories and interweaves them, using a cast of five role-switching actors.
This makes for a very engaging audience experience, with layers of intrigue. One moment you are watching Holmes and Watson piece together the events leading up to the murder of John Douglas in Sussex. The next you are transported to a world where a secret society of murderous gangsters terrorises a town in Vermissa Valley, Pennsylvannia. It’s apparent that the two stories are connected and will eventually converge, but throughout the play the audience is left wondering exactly how that will happen. Until the final moments, it’s not even clear who in the backstory is the murder victim, let alone the murderer (although those trained in the art of deduction may be able to narrow at least one of them down based on who is playing the present day roles). It’s all performed on a single set beautifully designed by Victoria Spearing which serves to bring together the two worlds, with the different sections neatly linked together with songs adapted and written by Tristan Parkes.
The production sees Luke Barton and Joseph Derrington slip back into the familiar shoes of Holmes and Watson, having previously played the roles in The Sign of Four. Barton is a suitably eccentric Holmes, demonstrating impressive versatility as he switches from the calm and collected Holmes into violent gangster, Teddy Baldwin, while Derrington offers dry wit as he narrates the tale in between playing an assortment of other characters. Gavin Molloy is incredibly sinister in his two biggest roles of Bodymaster McGinty and Holmes’ mastermind nemesis Professor Mortiarty. The cast is completed by Blake Kubena (who is credited as playing four characters but not all of them are quite what they seem) and Alice Osmanski, who ends up picking up the many (but unfortunately largely peripheral) female characters.
The show is recommended for ages 11+ and we definitely wouldn’t suggest taking much younger children. Crotchet (not quite 11) was gripped throughout, despite the long running time, but did find it a little scary in places. The Vermissa Valley scenes are also quite gritty, featuring knives, guns and physical combat which younger or more sensitive children might find upsetting.
Overall, it’s a very enjoyable play which will appeal to anyone who likes a murder mystery, whether or not they are particular fans of the Sherlock Holmes stories. It’s quite a traditional take on a classic detective tale in many ways, but the interlinking of the back story makes it so much more interesting while the ending manages to both crack the case and leave you wanting more. Just one mystery remains – Which Sherlock Holmes story will Blackeyed Theatre tackle next?
Sherlock Holmes: The Valley of Fear plays at Greenwich Theatre from 21 to 24 September 2022 as part of a UK tour. We received complimentary tickets to the press performance on 21 September.