Smokescreen/Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Symmetric Mailshot (Online review)

Smokescreen/Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Symmetric Mailshot (Online review)

It was a bit of a Sherlock Holmes day yesterday as I investigated a couple of productions which featured the great detective. But prior to that I headed towards another play based on a famous literary work.

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Having only just watched Shakespeare’s Hamlet a couple of days ago I was glad the storyline was fresh in my mind as I’m sure that helped me appreciate Smokescreen Production’s audio drama Waiting For Hamlet that bit more. Why use the influence of one writer when you can use three? The 45 minute play owes a debt not only to Shakespeare but also Tom Stoppard and Samuel Beckett (whose seminal drama about hanging around not doing much is referenced in the title). Stoppard’s “heroes” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern endlessly debate life, the universe and everything in it but at least they are, despite the title, alive. Davd Visick’s script takes things one stage further and uses two of the characters who die before the action of Shakespeare’s play begins, old King Hamlet and his jester Yorrick. We encounter them in limbo – indeed Yorrick has already put in 23 years there –  and the two of them debate how and whether they can proceed to the “big H” (whichever version it is). While waiting, they contemplate their past lives, the nature of kingship and commonality and why hats are so important.

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Visick’s script manages to both riff on the influences and transcend them in a script which is very amusing but also gives pause for thought. There are endless Shakespearean references which cross over to plays other than Hamlet (there’s a healthy chunk of Richard II in there) and the witty repartee between the two characters makes for a very lively listen – “I’m a headline; you’re a punchline” was a particular favourite. The two actors, Tim Marriott as the King and Nicholas Collett as the Fool, sound completely at home with their characters and the sound production is clear and unfussy. Waiting For Hamlet works in the way these pastiche/homages generally tend to work, assuming a familiarity with the material from which they are spinning off. A bit more contextualising in an introduction or notes on the website might be helpful for those not in that position but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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The second audio play from Smokescreen, Watson: The Final Problem, is rather more reverential towards its source material. It is a dramatic monologue, also featuring Tim Marriott, which largely uses an abridged version of Conan Doyle’s last story about Sherlock Holmes (the last, at least, until Doyle chose to revive his hero after a public outcry about his demise). There is an introduction about Watson’s early days and how he meets up with Holmes (which solves the contextualising issue highlighted above) and a downbeat conclusion that really does seem to wind up proceedings for the detective and the doctor. In the main though we follow the course of the original story as Holmes and Watson pursue the scheming Moriarty across Europe. Either you will already know what transpires – in which case there is no point in revealing it to you – or you don’t – in which case I won’t go into detail and spoil things. In many respects the story foregrounds Watson rather than Holmes and, as the title indicates, it is the Doctor who is left with a riddle to solve.

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Marriott’s carefully moderated narration keeps the story, adapted by Bert Coules, bubbling along nicely and manages to differentiate the various participants vocally. However, it would probably have helped the drama to have different performers for the various roles. I suspect the solo performance aspect works much better in a live theatre situation where you can see the actor transforming vocally and physically. The technical effects are good, conjuring up locations such as a busy London railway station and the rushing waters of the Reichenbach Falls. I didn’t find it as engaging as the first play partly because I already knew the outcome and partly because it lacked the cut and thrust dialogue and witty humour of the first. Perhaps it is more of an audio book than a play but if you’re a Holmes aficionado you will enjoy this…and it did set me up nicely for my third production of the day.

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Intriguingly, this was entitled Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Symmetric Mailshot and, sure enough, ahead of the start time I received an email from Dr Watson himself giving me my joining instructions and password. For this is a livestreamed production via Zoom from a company called CtrlAlt_Repeat. Sherlock Holmes is due to address a webinar about his latest case but gets sidetracked when a cat goes missing and so it’s up to us, The Baker Street Irregulars (i.e. the audience), to help Doctor Watson and Mrs Hudson sort through the clues and solve the case. There’s a lot in here about self-serving politicians and a suspicious information gathering app (I can’t think WHERE they come up with such ideas) all in a plot that is as convoluted as Conan Doyle himself would have constructed. There are visits to a night club hosted by Irene Adler, the fireside of Mycroft Holmes and Inspector Lestrade turns up periodically. When you’re not busy questioning them you are downloading and reading documents from Watson and Hudson, investigating websites for further clues, Googling for information about a remote area of New Mexico and trading theories with your fellow Irregulars. Holmes also puts in the occasional appearance, while cat chasing, to raise issues and propound theories – and of course he turns up at the end to sort everything out.

I have to say the whole thing was absolutely ingenious and really pulled out all the stops to show what can be done in a relatively new medium. It definitely helps to know your way round Zoom, though if you do go wrong the team soon sort you out. You really do need to interact to get the most out of it – though this is never forced on you. The piece is, perforce, largely improvised by a quick thinking cast but based round a central story created by Sid Phoenix. The characterisations are slender but in this sort of thing who cares? If you want to do a bit more than just sit and watch something then this is definitely for you as you can immerse yourself in a different world for a while. It’s elementary!

Waiting For Hamlet & Watson: The Final Problem are available on the Smokescreen website. Click here

To access event information and tickets for Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Symmetric Mailshot click here

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For my Theatre Online list (suggestions and news of newly released productions) please click here. This list is supplemented by daily updates on Twitter (@johnchapman398)

5 thoughts on “Smokescreen/Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Symmetric Mailshot (Online review)

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