“Let’s talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs”

“Let’s talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs”

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While I have seen theatrical performances in a number of unusual venues over the years, last night was definitely a first when I attended a performance of The Hound of The Baskervilles in a cemetery. The familiar tale of the beast from hell is one of Conan Doyle’s most famous Sherlock Holmes stories and it was played out among the graves and memorials of Abney Park in Stoke Newington by the ambitious 09 Lives company. With an autumnal chill in the air and a bright moonlit night, the playing conditions could not have been more ideal; clever use of portable lightning added a different sort of chill to the atmosphere conjured up by local installation company SLAY.

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The storyline is familiar enough not to need retelling here. Suffice to say rather than taking a jokey approach to the material (which, I confess, I had been expecting) 09 played the whole thing with a straight bat as a Victorian melodrama complete with exaggerated stances and some overripe dialogue to enhance the tension. This was an immersive promenade performance and our guide was a moustachioed Conan Doyle himself. Acting as narrator and filling in details of the journey to Dartmoor and the background to the Hound legend, Angus Chisholm’s performance was suitably grave (sorry!) and engaging as he led us deeper into the wilderness which is Abney Park. There are no serried ranks of carefully manicured plots here; the cemetery is deliberately kept as a wilderness site making the locations that Doyle described spring vividly to life. The centrepiece of the park and the performance was the chapel which provided a suitably eerie Gothic location as Baskerville Hall itself.

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Giorgio Galassi took on the key role of Holmes portraying him as a sparky almost manic figure who, of course, has all the answers and then some more. The issue (which has always been the fly in the ointment of any adaptation of this story for me) is that Doyle has Holmes disappear from the action for about half the story and thus the most compelling character is absent from proceedings for far too long. While this gave Galassi the chance to double in a slightly less significant role I found myself waiting for Holmes’ reappearance to pep up the storyline a little. That said the action here was propelled along by Holmes’s usually marginalised sidekick Doctor Watson and I thought Gary Cain made a splendid job of bringing this often rather dull character to life. The other players – Sarah Warren, Andrew Phipps and Dan de la Motte – fleshed out the remaining characters with appropriate regard for the material and an eye for exaggerated characterisation in keeping with the tone of the piece.

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Direction of the actual scenes by Lil Warren was pacy and assured. But for me the problem with any promenade piece is keeping the atmosphere alive as the audience moves from location to location. Despite some eerie bush rustling (which may have been just the natural breeze) and the wailing of the hound there were times when the whole narrative momentum of the play flagged as we trooped through the pitch-black cemetery guided by torchlight. The unfortunate intrusion of distant traffic noise at some key points also detracted a little from the carefully orchestrated atmosphere. I’m afraid my big disappointment, though, was the “appearance” of the hound itself which was underplayed to the point of non-existence.
In the main we had a fine time with what is, after all, a rattling good yarn and the company are to be commended for providing a highly unusual experience. As we headed for the main gates there was one last blast of bone chilling howling courtesy of Yvonne Gilbert’s sound design …. at least, I hope that was the case!

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Production images by Terrill

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