York Theatre Royal’s summer show revisits a classic Sherlock Holmes story. Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad spoke to artistic director Damien Cruden.
Benedict Cumberbatch, Steven Moffat, Robert Downey Jr, Basil Rathbone, Guy Ritchie; the actors and directors attracted to Sherlock Holmes is as varied as it is lengthy.
Added to that list now is the artistic director of York Theatre Royal Damian Cruden and the theatre’s pantomime super villain David Leonard. Cruden is the latest director to take inspiration from Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation, the super sleuth who is the most portrayed character in movie history according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
Despite the adaptations that abound, it would appear Cruden has found something new to do with the story of The Hound of the Baskervilles. A cast of six actor-musicians combine to tell the tale with Leonard, well known to York audiences as the theatre’s pantomime villain, taking on the title role. Rather than heading into rehearsals with a script, Cruden devised the play with the cast, which means there were loose ideas about the story when they all went into the rehearsal room with the writer and they emerged with the show at the end of the process.
“It was great fun and because we devised it together as a company, it’s ended up being much more of a musical than it would otherwise have been,” says Cruden.
“When I set out on the process of what I wanted to do, how I wanted to tell this story, I wanted to use the particular skills of the actors on stage and devising allows you to do that. We’ve worked with a composer, actor-musicians and the whole company can sing, so it’s been great fun to look at the challenge of telling a story through song. There’s a really interesting thing that happens when you have that device; it allows you to focus and catch up with where you are and have a lot of fun with the actual notion of storytelling.”
So it’s irreverent, cheeky and fun, according to Cruden. It feels like the way that Sherlock himself is presented these days. Time was when he was an infallible almost robotic hero on screen, but the light and shade of the character has made for a more interesting hero in recent incarnations.
Cruden sees the appeal of the character, with audiences lapping up his production so far. “It’s a great story full of fun and no small amount of nonsense. It’s a perfect family show. Sherlock really is a character that people flock to see for lots of different reasons.
“We’ve had great audiences, but what I’ve noticed particularly is that there are a lot of tourists, people from America, Japan, China. There is something quintessentially British about it, there’s something about that that brings in the audiences.”
While big stage magic and illusions might be tempting when telling a story like The Hounds of the Baskervilles, the director has kept things simple. “We have a beautiful set and we’re telling it as though this is a Victorian theatre troupe telling the story,” says Cruden. “It has a sort of steampunk feel to it. When you look at Victorian music hall and Victorian theatre and storytelling, you realise it was a lovely mix of techniques from music to puppetry, shadow play and melodrama and it all fits the stories of Sherlock perfectly.”
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