Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

holmes cast

Left to right: Simon (Rod Bissett), Felix (Sam Evans), Daria (Liz Webster), Aggie (Leanne Brown), Martha (Julie Lomas, Madge (Lorraine Samantha Allen) and William Gillette (Rob Meehan).

Holmes for the holidays

The Grange Players

The Grange Playhoue, Walsall


NOW, before we start, I can’t see anything funny about the murder – twice – of a theatre critic, but the audience certainly did in this romp of a comedy murder mystery.

The year is 1936, and the play opens as theatre star William Gillette, played by Robert Meehan, takes a bow at the end of his long running and immensely profitable self-penned play Sherlock Holmes, only to be shot by a would-be assassin.

Luckily it is only a flesh wound, a close shave for Gillette one might say (close shave? . . . Gillette? . . . all right, please yourself) and, recovering, he invites his fellow cast members to his newly built Connecticut Castle to spend Christmas with him and his mother, Martha, played by Julie Lomas.

There is the fun-loving, bear-like Felix Gisel, played by Sam Evans, and his wife Madge, played by Lorraine Samantha Allen, along with newly-weds Simon and Aggie, played by Rod Bissett and Leanne Brown, a couple who have yet to announce their union.

But Gillette has a hidden agenda. Not unreasonably he would quite like to know who is trying to do him in before the show reopens, particularly as he suspects one of the cast.

So, like his stage character of Sherlock Holmes, he is conducting his own investigation. Elementary, isn’t it. And as part of that, he has invited along vitriolic theatre critic and columnist Daria Chase, sultry, sexy and sharp-tongued in the shape of Liz Webster in a wonderfully bitchy performance.

She has written scathing reviews of all the cast, such as likening Felix to a lump of beef in one performance and casting aspersions on Simon’s . . . should we say, ability to suitably fill a swimming costume, in another.

So her arrival is as welcome as root canal work. There are not just the rapier-like reviews to worry about though; Daria has a reputation for . . . how should we put this . . . reviewing horizontally, so to speak, and has had private performances from at least one of the assembled guests.

Now as this is a comedy murder mystery somebody has to die . . .

Sorry, but those, are the rules . . .

. . . preferably at a suitable point at the end of act one so the audience can discuss likely suspects in the bar during the interval, after seeing the corpse scramble off stage in the darkness first of course.

Suitable refreshed after the interval, Gillette starts to inform the police of the killing, until, upon discovering the culprit, he dismisses the call. But US police forces of 1936 New England were nothing if not thorough – and equal opportunity employers it appears –  so tweed clad Inspector no nonsense Goring turns up, in the shape of Suzy Donnelly.

Which leads to a sort of game of musical cadaver with a corpse which can’t make up its mind as to whether it is dead or not, an epiphany from Felix, a revelation of the murderer, and, for good measure, another murderer, and the murderer we first thought of and yet another to finish it off.

Do keep up at the back.

American Ken Ludwig’s 2011 play won the 2012 Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allen Poe Award for Best Play and rattles along at a fair old pace. Evans and Meehan create a fine double act, aided by Webster, who plays itgillette as hilmes dead straight, shall we say, in a series of splendidly funny scenes in the second act.

The trio almost steal the show with scenes of wonderful black slapstick as Donnelly, a model of efficiency, is left floundering as she carries on meticulously sleuthing around them.

William Gillette in the eponymous role in his play Sherlock Holmes

Then, as the investigation heads in new directions, Gillette dons deerstalker, Inverness cape coat and curved briar pipe to become Sherlock Holmes – he really should up the medication – and starts to conduct his own enquiries.

Meandering about in the background is Lomas’s delightfully dotty Martha, dottier still after taking her sleeping pills, Leanne Brown’s emotionally fragile Aggie, who wouldn’t hurt a fly - look out if you are not a fly though - and Lorraine Samantha Allen’s bristly Madge. Remember that thing about woman scorned? She packs a great right hook.

There is not a weak character in sight and this is a real cracker of a production which is a satisfying mix of laugh out loud comedy, with some genuine belly laughs, allied to a mystery with a clever plot to keep you guessing. There is even a moment of supernatural terror to keep you on your toes.

Accents can be hit and miss when plays are set in America but while Americans might cringe, as we do at their attempts at the Queen’s English, they were inoffensive to a Midland ear, and, just as important, they were consistent, so you quickly stopped even noticing them.

Director Chris Waters keeps everything on track keeping up a good pace, which is needed with a running time a shade under two-and-a-half hours, which means time just flies by, all aided by some good writing. The first act sets the scene succinctly, with no fuss, telling you all you need to know with laughs along the way, then the pace picks up in a second half which is almost Agatha Christie does farce. Wonderful stuff.

Costumes look authentic, which all helps set the scene and a mention too for the superb set from All Round Property Services and Rod Bissett which sets the tone of the whole production.

Stan Vigurs and Colin Mears deserve a mention too for lighting and sound. Many productions have lights on, lights off, interval, same again, end, with sound little more than can you hear OK at the back?

Here there are plenty of cues to deal with in a house full of gadgets, amid a storm, thunder, lightning, flickering power supplies as well as an excited dog, and everything appeared to be spot on.

The result is a most satisfying and entertaining evening of whodunit with laughs. We all need a laugh sometimes, just a pity it was at the expense of a theatre critic . . . To 21-01-17

Roger Clarke

This is the first feature film adapting Sherlock Holmes to the screen, starring William Gillette, who was a real person. Long believed lost, it was restored in 2014-15 from a nitrate copy found in the Cinémathèque Française. The full version can be seen HERE

William Hooker Gillette, who died in 1937, aged 87, is credited with creating the popular personae of Sherlock Holmes with his long, elaborate dressing gown, deerstalker, caped coat and curved pipe, allegedly so he could speak his lines with his pipe in his mouth.

His play, Sherlock Holmes, sanctioned by Arthur Conan Doyle, ran for some 30 years with Gillette playing the Baker Street detective more than 1,300 times. His home, Gillette Castle in Hadlyme, Connecticut, is now one of the top tourist attractions in the state. There is no record of any attempt upon his life, nor of his having been shot. 

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