Sherlock Holmes: A Working Hypothesis

You don't need to have read any of the Arthur Conan Doyle novels in order to feel that you know a great deal about Sherlock Holmes. The fictional detective and his famous character traits are such a fabric of British history and have been portrayed at times as comic, brooding and darkly serious - as well as being on display in the museum of his 'real' home on Baker Street - that it's hardly surprising some believe him to have really existed, and this 'reality' is a starting point for the set-up to the piece here.

An unchallenging evening's entertainment that relies fully on audience participation

The Flanagan Collective's "lecture, not a show", led by Professor Selohm Söcklehr (no prizes on offer here for solving that), Sherlock Holmes: A Working Hypothesis throws in all the clear signifiers - drug addiction, deerstalker, his distaste for the public, the quasi-gay relationship and of course the fascination with puzzles and outwitting arch-nemesis Moriarty - to create an unchallenging evening's entertainment that relies fully on audience participation. Though including everything from farce to drama, stand-up to improvisational ad-libs - as well as very long games of Hangman - it's not actually clear at what sort of audience this is being aimed.

From the outset, you know this isn't going to be the sort of play to which you can sit back, relax and just watch. 'The Professor', onstage with just a basic OHP and table, chats to individual members of the audience as we enter, teasing their looks, levels of drunkenness and assumed lack of comparable intelligence, whilst requesting we all wear name tags, immediately making us part of the cast. With a German accent and limp straight out of a Carry On film, he begins his lecture on 'The Science of Deduction and Analysis', referencing Holmes' death at the hands of Moriarty three years earlier - and quickly gets us to do a (hardly necessary) exercise in guessing the occupations of the strangers around us. Dominic Allen cleverly mixes structured script with audience reaction to include and amuse us, though his high levels of camp and silly disparaging put-downs do nothing to create any believability in the character. I'm not sure there is meant to be.

John Watson - a likeable and personable performance by Alexander Wright (though looking rather too young to have had the history of Watson) - interrupts the lecture a short way in, revealing the Professor isn't actually who he says he is. And then the rest of the night touches lightly on the reuniting of the friends but predominately is about getting us to solve anagrams and find clues in order to track down the evil Moriarty. The show relies on revealing little surprises that are fun but not too difficult to spot or solve - such as the anagram of the Professor's name - but means it would be unfair of me to ruin it with spoilers. It's a simple narrative structure that plays out, with our help (or at times hindrance) to outwit the bad guy.

The key here is the audience involvement throughout. The promotion for the show mentions that it is an interactive drama, but most of the people watching that I spoke to weren't prepared for the levels to which we all need to be actively involved. The problem here is that if the audience is largely made up of 'quieter theatregoers', then the energy is continually being drained and the set pieces start to drag (with the two actors barely concealing their frustration that we're not playing along, and lacking the tools to pick it back up).

Anagrams are key, and the game of Hangman I mentioned earlier introduces us to the idea - but on this night, took about 15 minutes to play and just became boring to watch. When no one really properly searched for hidden items, it was left to Wright to single-handedly double check about 50 seats - dragging again (and again, because of us). There's a dance-off which felt decidedly panto and half-hearted by the middle-aged crowd. And when we are all split into teams with strangers to solve clues together in the interval, the British reserve for mixing in such a way made it more uncomfortable than enjoyable for many. But it's difficult to blame a 'bad audience' if expectations haven't been managed.

It's tricky to sum up what this performance is. It's not really a dramatic play - in fact, when it slips in to some moments of drama and loses the fun, it is at its weakest - and it's not really stand-up: though it has elements of both these genres. It's more a funny, entertaining, involving way to have a night out that's different to most times you may visit the theatre. How much you enjoy it very much depends on how much you like to throw yourself in and take part - if that isn't your thing, then you may find the whole experience horribly awkward. I would strongly suggest they make this more explicit in the advertising as I am sure the actors' levels of enjoyment and the quality and pace of each performance is directly impacted by the willingness and extrovert nature of the audience.

Go with a group of mates, have a few (responsible) drinks beforehand and have a very enjoyable evening out. They even suggest meeting them in the pub for drinks after the show is over. Good for a unique way to celebrate a birthday or similar - less good for the quiet fans of Conan Doyle who would prefer a real Holmes mystery to unfold before them.

Reviews by Simon Smith

Dorfman Theatre

Home, I'm Darling

★★
Olivier Theatre

Exit the King

Royal Court Theatre

Pity

★★
National Theatre

The Lehman Trilogy

★★★★★
Lyttelton Theatre

Julie

★★★★
Olivier Theatre

Translations

★★

Performances

Location

The Blurb

It’s 1963. Three years after The Reichenbach Falls and the great detective, Sherlock Holmes, is presumed dead. Dr John Watson has married and moved on, consigning his days of adventure and investigation to memories. James Moriarty hasn’t been seen.

In an old, abandoned theatre a lecture is about to take place. An eminent professor of Criminology prepares to educate his audience on the inner workings of Sherlock Holmes - The Science Of Deduction and Analysis.

Based on the much loved stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, this is an original and interactive drama which has toured the UK. This fast paced production pits friendship against ego and ask what we would really be willing to sacrifice in order to win. A show about our battles, our allegiances and our lives. With the audience at the centre of the evening, nothing is quite what it seems.

Sherlock Holmes: A Working Hypothesis has delighted audiences around the UK, and now comes to Greenwich following an acclaimed run at the Adelaide Fringe.