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SCRUTINY | Sherlock Holmes And The Raven’s Curse Isn't Rocket Science But It’s Lots Of Fun

By Paula Citron on August 25, 2021

Sherlock Holmes and The Ravens Curse
A scene from Sherlock Holmes and The Ravens Curse playing at the Shaw Festival. (Courtesy photo)

Shaw Festival/Sherlock Holmes and the Raven’s Curse by R. Hamilton Wright, directed by Craig Hall, Festival Theatre, July 24 to Oct. 10.

Before I get to the relative merits of Sherlock Holmes and the Raven’s Curse, I have to talk about the experience. I was in an actual theatre, in a real theatre seat. The house lights went down and there were real actors on the stage, with a set, and lighting, and costumes. There was even an intermission. I felt that I had come home.

Admittedly, we were all in masks and scattered throughout the theatre. The capacity under current Covid rules in the orchestra at the Shaw Festival Theatre is 300 (or half the seats). At the Sunday night performance I attended, there were 180 patrons, so it did look thin, but I suspect it would look on the lean side, even with 300.

The point is, this Shaw performance was a big step back to normalcy. It was inside a theatre, and that’s what mattered. It also looked like social distancing wasn’t necessarily happening on stage. There were hugs and kisses, for example, and sitting close together, but clearly, the actors were comfortable, so they must have rehearsed in a bubble.

Sherlock Holmes and the Raven’s Curse is an original story by R. Hamilton Wright, although it does tack on in the program that it is based on the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Wright is an actor in Seattle, who has developed a second career adapting Conan Doyle’s works for the stage, or penning new plays in the manner of. It was his version of The Hound of the Baskervilles that Shaw mounted in 2018.

There is both (sort of) bad news and good news about this play. The sort of bad news is that the mystery at the heart of the story is pretty tame. No spoilers but take my word for it. On the other hand, there are glorious riches in terms of dialogue, characters and relationships. Playwright Hamilton has this aspect down cold.

It turns out that Sherlock (Damian Atkins) and Mycroft (Mike Nadajewski) Holmes have family on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. There they spent many years of their childhood with cousins Beatrice (Marla McLean) and Fiona (Donna Soares) MacKenzie. What takes Sherlock and Dr. Watson (Ric Reid) to Skye is a series of what could be mysterious family deaths.

The program notes make much of the fact that the three constant characters – Sherlock, Dr. Watson, and Mrs, Hudson (Claire Jullien) – are repeaters from 2018’s Baskervilles. Thus they have a chance to grow in the roles.

If memory serves, Atkins’ Sherlock came in for some criticism for not being the stereotype of the deerstalker wearing, pipe smoking, cold and analytical Holmes,

I, on the other hand, loved Atkins’ interpretation. He was like a tightly wound spring. There was a nervous edge to him. You could see the wheels turning in his head.  He was the poster child for both obsessive-compulsive behaviour and ADHD. Solving the mystery was driving his being beyond everything else. He was also a social misfit and a class A nerd.

Well that Sherlock is still there with more added on. Writer Hamilton has given him a good dose of humanity. Watson’s wife has recently died and Sherlock has lost touch with him because he didn’t know how to reach out in sympathy to the grieving doctor. Their reunion is one of the most poignant encounters in the play.

From the moment Watson says, “Don’t deduce me!”, Sherlock is stopped cold, denied his right to play the glib observation game. He has to face Watson man to man. Sherlock has been in the wrong, and he must confront buried feelings of shame and guilt. For Watson, on the other hand, Reid gives a magnificent performance as the hurt and sorrowing doctor who has now taken control of the situation.

And then there is Sherlock’s relationship with clever cousin Fiona, who matches him in intellect, and is, he admits, the only woman he has ever loved. The lively, irrepressible Fiona brings out a joie de vivre in Sherlock that we haven’t seen before – an almost playful spirit – and Soares does a lovely job in the role.

As for the others, Jullien’s warm-hearted Mrs. Hudson is loveable and gently bossy, while Nadajewski is delightful as the droll and laconic Mycroft. McLean’s stately Beatrice is like a grown-up antidote to the high energy antics of Sherlock and Fiona.

Hamilton has also written very funny lines for the snappish Scottish housekeeper Nanny Bull which Chick Reid delivers with gusto. Jason Cadieux and Katharine Gauthier are solid in smaller roles. In fact, it’s almost as if we have the return of the fabled Shaw ensemble.

Part of what makes this play so entertaining, however, is the rich dialogue. For example, after meeting with cousin Beatrice in London, the two brothers have enormous fun in the deduction game, analyzing everything they could observe about Beatrice, down to her fingernails. Just when you think there is nothing more to add, one of them comes up with a new pointer.

Director Craig Hall comes from Calgary’s Vertigo Theatre, apparently the only theatre in Canada devoted strictly to the mystery play genre. Vertigo presented the Canadian premiere of Sherlock Holmes and the Raven’s Curse, so Hall is on familiar ground and it shows. Right from the start, the pacing is lively and the energy high, and it never flags, making for an enjoyable performance all round.

Now I have to say that I think some of the London sets and projections are from 2018, but I may be wrong. Nonetheless, designer Ken MacKenzie, projection guru Cameron Davis, lighting designer Michelle Ramsay and composer John Gzowski have given us  19th century atmosphere galore. Things are dark, scenically and aurally. This is a mystery after all.

On the downside, some of the sets look a bit on the cheesy side like the railway compartment. Is this due to lack of budget? MacKenzie’s period costumes, on the other hand, are fetching.

In short, if you want an entertaining evening out, Sherlock Holmes and the Raven’s Curse fits the bill. It’s not rocket science but it’s lots of fun with a new twist on old Conan Doyle.

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Paula Citron
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