Let me explain: following in the footsteps of West End comic troupe the Fitzrovia Radio Hour, who perform retro “radio drama” (sound effects included) as if recording live before an audience, Veni Vidi Theatre Company have recreated the setting and atmosphere of a 1938 radio studio from which the Hound is being broadcast. This has the effect of making Conan Doyle’s story almost a play-within-a-play; we are introduced to the “cast” (played by the cast) as they roll into work, tossing their bowlers at hatstands, flirting, primping, smoking, and scanning the vintage newspapers in the “green-room” area.
This framing device is complemented by designer Dagmara Baran’s wonderfully detailed foyer, dressed with posters of the Thirties actors in various films, plus a pigeonhole for their mail, which makes Veni Vidi’s Hound experience feel almost like one of the immersive theatrical events for which Punchdrunk is justly famous. Even the programme is in the form of a spoof radio-magazine, featuring interviews with the stars of the show. Extraordinarily, the fourth wall is never broken – not even to announce the interval (the “broadcast” is instead interrupted by an BBC announcement from PM Neville Chamberlain), or end the play.
Perhaps this sounds confusing, but it actually works very well; in fact the only problem with this extra layer to the show is that its purpose isn’t entirely clear: it sheds minimal light on Conan Doyle’s story, and the 1938 characters are never allowed more than a few lines as themselves. Excellent though the central “broadcast” was, I felt I needed more of the surrounding drama between the cast: the rivalries, the backstabbing, the budding romance between “actors” Walter G. Lonnegan (Jonathan Broke) and Eva “The Eyes” Fields (Laura Bacon) to justify their inclusion. If this production could be improved materially, it would be by developing the 1938 backstory: I'd love to see a version which referenced Frayn's hilarious Noises Off, where the action behind the scenes comments on (and indeed eclipses) the main story.
But what about the main story: that of Sherlock Holmes (Henry Douthwaite), Dr. Watson (Robbie Telfer) and the gigantic hound (Matthew Wade)? Well, it clips along at a good pace in Simon Williams’s slightly hokey adaptation: Watson hears Holmes’s voice in his head (via a rolled-up newspaper to provide spooky echo) prompting him to ask the right questions at the right time, thus surmounting the problem Sherlockians will be aware of, that our detective hero is absent for most of the narrative.
However, the commanding Douthwaite, even when silent, has more than enough to do, and one of the great pleasures of watching this talented cast “do it on the radio” is seeing how the sound-effects are produced by the actors, as Douthwaite directs the slick, split-second action like a conductor. Along with Eun Kung Lee's faultless period costumes, Anna Sbokou's atmospheric lighting, and of course Andrew Divers's stirring original music, this makes the show just as fun to watch as listen to.
Another joy is seeing the cast slip into different roles; from the chirpy Baker Street Irregular played by Laura Bacon (alongside her larger parts as Beryl and Eliza), to James Maclaren's impressive doubling of Dr. Mortimer and the camp, sinister Stapleton. The egregiously bad Scots accent essayed by him as the former character is luckily explained away in one of the final lines, but it remains perhaps too painful to listen to for the sake of an in-joke: aside from that, the performances are uniformly excellent. The only other slight niggle I had was that from my corner seat it was sometimes hard to hear what the actors were saying over the impressive sound-effects, making me wish that the vintage mikes were indeed live.
But all in all, this is an extremely entertaining and engaging piece of theatre: reminiscent in some ways of the long-running stage version of The Thirty-Nine Steps, it deserves a longer run than its initial two weeks – and don't be surprised if, after a little more development, you see it in the West End soon.