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The Mill at Sonning - The Hound of the Baskervilles

1st February to 17th March 2018

Review from the Newbury Weekly News.

Somewhat surreal, my dear Watson

Simon Williams has a fresh take on a classic at The Mill at Sonning

The Hound of the Baskervilles, at The Mill at Sonning, until Saturday, March 17

If you are going to attempt a new approach to a familiar Sherlock Holmes story, it is a good idea to keep the old and familiar words and phrases, even if they are used in a different way.

"Elementary?" asks Dr Watson. "I'm afraid so, yes," replies Holmes. And when somebody asks him how long something will take, he says probably a hundred years – "by which time they will have opened my house at 221b Baker Street as a museum".

This production certainly set out to be fresh and different from the outset. Actor/writer Simon Williams adapted Arthur Conan Doyle's novel as a surreal exercise, part tragedy, part comedy and never obeying traditional rules. The bleak, composite set by Michael Holt concentrated on craggy surfaces and a lot of dark wood, suggesting the open moors of Dartmoor.

As to sequences inside, action at the front of stage often overlapped or even continued as another scene was being lit and played out at the back of the staging area. Innovative and different indeed, even if it did take a little time to get used to what was going on. And a novel way of presenting life-like portraits was to have actors standing there, holding up picture frames over their faces. I know you should suspend disbelief in the theatre, but this was ridiculous.

Being new and different, this production, cleverly staged and directed by Thomas Daley, offered the actors the chance to ham it up and they took it gleefully. James Tucker and Darrell Brokis made a fine double-act as Holmes and Watson. Brokis was bumbling and in awe of Holmes' deduction prowess and Tucker was smooth, suave and a little arrogant as Holmes. No messing with those characterisations then…

Ajjaz Awad did very well as Mary and she also played Eliza, Beryl, Cartwright, Laura and a policeman – and helped operate the hound (explanation later). Awad must have been wondering all night which costume to jump into next.

Chris Myles was effective as Dr Mortimer, Stapleton and a policeman and managed to separate the characters nicely. Tom McCarron, Matthew Pearson and Gilbert Taylor rounded out a very strong, hard-working cast.

The scenes on the moor, very realistic, with dry ice creating real-looking fog and the hound baying hauntingly set up some edge of seat tension. A pity then, that the hound (a skeletal puppet with an actor behind, operating his movements) rather spoiled the effect. Surely an actor in a large dog costume would have worked – I've seen realistic dog-costumed people in panto recently. That minor blip apart though, this was a thoroughly invigorating, lively, amusing and at times frightening production.