Tobacco Tea Theatre’s Sherlockian parody begins with an intriguing premise: within the first few minutes, the great detective has killed the first client to walk into 221B Baker Street in weeks – but in such a way that he is completely unaware that he is the one responsible for the corpse on the carpet.
Soon Holmes (Jasmine Atkins-Smart) has an outlandish explanation for the murder – and a profile for the culprit. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t think it’s him.
How is it that someone with such brilliant deductive powers doesn’t realise he himself committed the foul deed? Surely someone so outwardly dedicated to justice is not so inwardly morally bankrupt as to be trying to get away with murder? Both of these brow-furrowing concerns turn into full-blown anxieties almost immediately when Watson (Ellis J. Wells) reveals to the audience that he invented the case for his own ends, which raises another conundrum: are we really supposed to believe that the erstwhile doctor could fool Sherlock Holmes?
So begins this ‘accidental adventure’ which, you’ll have gathered by now is anything but. The show is a revamped version of the same one that has toured the Edinburgh Fringe for the past two years, directed then by Chris Cutting and now by Anna Marshall. Rounding out the cast is Joshua Phillips as Moriarty, with the trio multi-roling all the remaining parts.
All questions are answered 50 minutes later in the denouement, but the journey there is laboured. The story, stuffed with ridiculous plot twists, is preposterous. That’s its prerogative as a satire, but here intelligent plotting is sacrificed in favour of absurdity for absurdity’s sake, and the production suffers for it.
Take Mrs Hudson: in her only appearance, she thinks she’s a bee because she is tripping on acid. Not long after, Watson pauses to eat a sausage that Holmes has been manhandling in his deductions. These bring laughs, but they’re the cheap, throwaway kind, farce without cleverness.
The knowing references to the Holmes canon are better, and plentiful – there’s a particularly well done commentary on the irritating nature of Watson’s (and implicitly, Arthur Conan Doyle’s) accounts of Holmes’ adventures in The StrandMagazine – but the jokes stitched around them are often heavy-handed.
Much of the best humour, aside from the odd gem of a one-liner, comes from the physical acting rather than the script, and from the trio’s reactions when – as is so common in performances where everyone multi-roles – something doesn’t quite go to plan. Wells’ Watson is the clear stand-out, at turns put upon, sycophantic and exasperated in his relationship with Holmes, revealing his duplicitous nature in a series of devilishly delightful asides to the audience.
Phillips ends up with most of the busywork, playing a good number of the incidental roles, but this showcases both his fluidity and comic timing. Only Atkins-Smart seems short-changed: her Holmes borders on being one-dimensional, persistently madcap when the detective is supposed to be variously depressed, excited, flummoxed and triumphant. Again, this comes back to the plotting: Holmes’ name is in the title, but he has little input in driving events until the very end.
It’s not a perfect piece, with as many groans as there are laughs, but one worthy of a look if you hold a candle for Sherlock adaptations. Just don’t go expecting a perfectly formed whodunit.