Never does the phrase ‘The Show Must Go On’ feel more appropriate than when referencing outdoor theatre. Come rain or shine, The Watermill Theatre’s dedicated audience sits poised in ponchos and trench coats expecting to be delighted with the acclaimed theatre’s performances. It begins its journey to rebuild its place as a leading force of British theatre by revisiting last year’s sell-out production of The Hound of the Baskervilles – directed by Abigail Pickard Price, who devised the show with its original cast members Victoria Blunt, Rosalind Lailey, and James Mack.
The show follows Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s renowned Sherlock Holmes mystery, detailing the legend of a demonic hound rumoured to be plaguing the Baskerville family. After the sudden death of Sir Charles Baskerville, under quite peculiar circumstances, his friend Dr James Mortimer is compelled to seek out Holmes and solve this deadly whodunit.
The teams parodical approach to the text brings a refreshing edge to an overly examined piece, often poking fun at plot points and Conan Doyle’s writing styles. Not only do the actors play multiple roles, but they also swap characters between one another, overcomplicating the scenes in a hysterical way, as well as creating all the sound effects and doing the costume changes themselves.
Always tongue in cheek, the show incorporates the current COVID guidelines into the play, including a rather on-point Boris impression, social distancing, and hand gels aplenty. Slight-of-hand is used to pass letters amongst the cast in a beautifully theatrical way, demonstrating the ingenuity of theatre folk to find a way through the minefield of rules and regulations. Throughout, there are huge breeches of the fourth wall as well as complete character breaks that leave me in fits of laughter. As the characters narrate the story, they must even reign in the other actors for their overegged or incorrect performances.
Both Mack and Lailey give brilliant returning performances along with new cast member Roxana Bartle, who has taken over for Blunt, rehearsing an accomplished performance in an extremely limited period of just one week. All three skim from character to character (and to self) with a deft hand, always in control of every part of the action even when it seems not so, and in just two short acts they prove themselves to be masters of physical comedy.
The rain makes no difference to this gorgeous production, scaled back from the fully lit and dressed productions of the pre-Covid era. The outdoor setting in the wonderful countryside of the Watermill only furthers the illusion of the play’s rural setting of Dartmoor, immersing the audience as birds swoop and bees buzz.
Somewhere deep within the soul of the performing arts there is an audible exhale as life is breathed back onto the stage. And god does it feel good to be back.
The Hound of the Baskervilles is now playing at The Watermill Theatre until 19 June. For more information and to book tickets, visit The Watermill Theatre’s website.