It would hardly have taken the world’s greatest detective to deduce that Hollywood pulling-power, in the shape of local boy Jay Baruchel, combined with the brand name recognition of Conan Doyle’s immortal creation, would make Sherlock Holmes a surefire hit. Guttingly, the death of playwright-performer Greg Kramer just before rehearsals began have made this not just a major cultural event for the city but a celebration of the life and talent of one of its most multifaceted theatre artists. Ticket sales have of course gone through the roof, and it would take the criminal genius of a Moriarty to get an available seat at this stage.
Kramer’s adaptation could hardly be in better hands. Sidemart Theatrical Grocery, under the stewardship of Andrew Shaver, has proven itself to be one of the most consistently inventive ensemble companies around, and Shaver’s dazzlingly physical direction keeps Baruchel on his toes – literally, in one hilarious moment where he dances daintily around a crime scene.
Baruchel, more used to the short bursts of acting before camera than the endurance test of stage performance, clearly finds it a challenge, and at times he seems to lack focus and comes over as more interested in goofing around than grounding his character. Strangely, this actually ends up working rather well, with his slouch-shouldered stoner of a Holmes constantly exasperating the more conventionally correct Watson (Karl Graboshas likeable and intelligently solid), not only with his twitchy eccentricities but by the fact that – devil take it – he always turns out to be right.
Although Kramer has kept things in the Victorian era, with an elaborate plot involving the drugs trade, murder, kidnapping and police corruption, Baruchel plays the superhero sleuth very much in the modern key: dissipated and unshaven, red-eyed from hedonistic pleasures, dropping in the odd anachronistic insult, and knowingly arching his eyebrows at the absurdity of the stage conventions around him. “Mrs Hudson!?” he exclaims, when he notices it’s his homely housekeeper driving the Hanson cab that’s taking him on a madcap pursuit. “Why not?” he shrugs.
And ‘why not?’ seems to be the presiding philosophy of the production, where anything and everything goes, all beautifully designed, lit and video-projected into a world of steampunk industrial clutter. Stylistically, it dashes between blood-curdling Victorian melodrama, the lowbrow varieties of the music hall, and the high-energy wackiness of traditional British panto. Some of it gets a good-hearted groan, some elicits an uncomfortable cringe, much of it bursts into pure brilliance, as when the whole cast launch into a nightmarish, opium-fueled Cockney knees-up which comes over like Lionel Bart’s Oliver! on smack.
It also plunders the grammar of early cinema, with a flashback to a dastardly crime played out like a hand-cranked What-the-Butler-Saw show, and Gemma James-Smith’s Lady Irene hilariously signaling her damsel-in-distress alarm through panda-eyed make-up.
The twelve-strong cast keep things moving quickly along, despite the occasional peasouper of complicated exposition. There are stand-out performances from Graham Cuthbertson as a murderous, mutton-chop-whiskered henchman, and from Chip Chuipka and Trent Pardy between them populating London with a gallery of grotesques. But, appropriately, it’s Kyle Gatehouse who steals the show as criminal mastermind Moriarty, a louche, witty Lucifer in an infernal red suit.
Much to enjoy then, and if in a kinder world the script might have benefited from the sure theatrical instincts of Greg Kramer during rehearsals – a bit of plot-tightening here, a spot of gag-polishing there – this is a spectacular and joyous realization of his last act of magic.
Sherlock Holmes plays at the Segal Centre to May 28.
PHOTO: André Lanthier