One might have thought it elementary that Arthur Conan Doyle, Samuel Beckett and Patrick Barlow (of National Theatre of Brent fame) are so distinct as writers – both in style and subject matter – that to attempt to combine their oeuvres would be a crime so heinous that it would be worthy of investigation by Sherlock Holmes himself. Yet it is just such an unlikely amalgam that is attempted by actor and playwright Lesley Hart in this adaptation of Conan Doyle’s first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet.
The premise of Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Lipstick, Ketchup and Blood carries a distinct resemblance to that of Beckett’s Endgame. Its two characters, Harry (Deirdre Davis) and Ash (Tom Richardson), are clinging to the last remnants of life in a devastated, post-apocalyptic landscape. However, whereas Beckett’s characters try to survive through repetitive rituals of their own devising, Hart’s duo do so by performing their stage version of Conan Doyle’s novel more than 250 times.
The play, which is directed by Marc Small and performed in the glorious outdoor amphitheatre in Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s beautiful gardens, is also reminiscent of Barlow’s much-loved comic adaptation of The 39 Steps. Barlow’s piece – a hilarious homage to both John Buchan’s novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s film – delights with its ludicrous requirement that actors perform a dizzying array of dramatis personae.
Likewise, Hart’s drama has every character in Conan Doyle’s novel (including corpses and an ill-fated dog) played by just Davis and Richardson. The comic potential of this is mined particularly in having Harry (who, unlike Ash, is a professional actor) play both Holmes and Watson (the two characters being distinguished by whether or not Harry is wearing Holmes’s famous deerstalker hat).
If this sounds like an unsustainable concoction for a 65-minute piece of theatre, that’s because it is. At no point – despite the valiant efforts of Davis (who is outstanding in her theatrical dexterity) and Richardson (who also impresses) – does the play justify the extremely strained concept upon which it rests. For sure, Conan Doyle’s novel contains death (in the shape of murders on both sides of the Atlantic) and an American Christian theology that embraces notions of the apocalypse (although, wisely, Hart avoids Conan Doyle’s inaccurate description of the theology as Mormonism). However, to try to connect that with a catastrophic futurism, as Hart does, is to stretch matters beyond endurance.
Consequently, the two narratives – Conan Doyle’s story and the post-apocalyptic hell in which Harry and Ash exist – are never successfully coupled. Holmes’s entertaining, forensic disengagement is simply incapable of carrying the moral weight of the end-of-humanity storyline, much to the detriment of the latter.
Too heavy a burden is also placed on the actors, who cannot be expected to be, simultaneously, tellers of Conan Doyle’s story, conveyors of human self-destruction and multi-character comic performers.
It is greatly to the credit of Davis and Richardson that – despite Hart’s script being the theatrical equivalent of a collapsed blancmange – they succeed in making the play’s disappointingly disconnected strands watchable.
Davis, in particular, achieves something close to alchemy in rendering Harry, Holmes, Watson and a panoply of other characters into, not a sensible whole, but something akin to an acting masterclass. Indeed, Davis distracts us with a level of emotional and psychological engagement of which the drama itself is unworthy.
The greatest director in the world couldn’t make a plausible narrative of this misconceived play. However, Small deserves credit for imbuing Hart’s dramaturgical mess with some sense of structure and momentum.
In rep until July 7. Tickets: 01796 484 626; pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com