Sherlock Holmes is back at the Shaw, right where he belongs, on the indoor stage at the Festival Theatre.
Reprising the role he played in 2018, Damien Atkins walked the floorboards in front of a sold-out audience Saturday night for Sherlock Holmes and the Raven’s Curse. It marked the return to indoor theatre at Shaw for the first time since 2019.
Director Craig Hall is ecstatic.
“It’s an absolute relief,” he says on the phone from Victoria, where he is preparing for the fall season of his Calgary-based Vertigo Theatre. “It’s fantastic. We are the only show at the Festival this year where we rehearsed outside, but we always intended to start onstage. It is a pure joy.”
Hall, who also directed 2018’s Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles at Shaw, says without the return to the indoor setting, this year’s mystery may not have happened.
“I’m not sure we could have adapted this show,” he admits. “The mystery genre needs, most of all, darkness. You need to be able to have secret spaces. You need to be able to hide certain things. And the nature of this piece, it travels from the streets of London, to Baker Street, onto a train, to the Isle of Skye. It would have been a tough one to do outside.”
Hall knows what it takes to mount a successful mystery production. His Vertigo Theatre company exclusively produces mystery plays. He’s become known across the country as an expert director of mysteries. During the pandemic, Vertigo shifted to offer Vertigo Mystery Radio, a ticketed online podcast in the style of classic radio dramas.
Opening night for Sherlock Holmes and the Raven’s Curse, written by R. Hamilton Wright, had been repeatedly pushed back until the province moved into the current step of its Roadmap to Recovery. For Hall, whose other commitments pulled him back to Western Canada a week ago, that meant he had to miss the debut performance.
“Originally, I was meant to be in Niagara until about the 15th of July,” Hall tells The Local. “It’s tough. I always say directors don’t finish, we kind of abandon our babies. Very often by the time I’m done, I’ve seen it two dozen times, and I’m kind of ready to let it go. With this one, I feel like I left before I was ready to go, but not before the show was ready to go.”
Hall feels he has left the show in incredibly capable hands.
Atkins, who also appears in The Devil’s Disciple at Shaw this summer, is back in the lead role of the much-loved detective. Also reprising their 2018 roles are Shaw veterans Ric Reid as Dr. Watson, and Claire Julien as Mrs. Hudson. The remainder of the ensemble is largely composed of Shaw regulars.
“Damien, Ric and Claire and I all have this shorthand, having done one of these before,” explains Hall. “You do sort of build off of what was built before. It’s also the same playwright, so there’s also a common language there.”
“Damien is a playwright himself,” Hall continues, “and in the short time that he’s been doing Sherlock Holmes, he’s become a bit of a Sherlock Holmes fanatic. He has a deep, deep knowledge of Conan Doyle and the Sherlock canon. I have a lot of faith in what they need from the piece, and they kind of become de facto leaders in the ensemble.”
Though the characters themselves are iconic, the story is an original, created by playwright Wright. Hall describes the play as “Sherlock Holmes meets Downton Abbey,” and says it will appeal to fans of both franchises.
In The Raven’s Curse, Sherlock Holmes is summoned to his childhood home to investigate the mysterious death of his favourite uncle, and to uncover the truth about an ancient family curse. Along the way he is reunited with some long-lost cousins, including one who might be withholding a dark secret. Holmes and Watson must race against time to get to the bottom of this mystery before the Raven’s Curse claims another life.
“Wright has done a masterful job of honouring the canon,” Hall says, “but yet expanding the characters, and maybe humanizing them a bit. This one delves into Sherlock’s personal history, and that’s something that Conan Doyle never really delved into. Wright is really able to dig into that stuff, and I think that’s really fun for fans of Sherlock who have never had that access.”
Hall is holding out hope that perhaps some time in the near future a third Sherlock Holmes mystery may take the stage in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
He hints at the possibility of another Wright original, focusing more prominently on Julien’s character, Mrs. Hudson, as a perfect vehicle for a return in a year or two. It’s a similar idea to what he does out in Calgary with Vertigo.
“I think the idea is to build a fan base for it that you get to capitalize on,” he says. “It gives a shorthand to marketing, to the audiences who get to see the continued adventures. There’s not a lot of that happening anymore in the theatre world.”
Meanwhile, the return to an indoor setting in front of an audience is exciting for Hall and the cast, many of whom had to turn to online performances during the pandemic.
“It’s a genre where you kind of feed off the crowd,” he says. “They’re much more active participants. You get those reactions when there are revelations. There’s also much more humour in this show. I know that even having a small audience is such a big thing for them (the actors).”
Shaw is currently selling tickets for both indoor and outdoor shows at a reduced capacity to maintain physical distancing. The exact percentages of seating varies depending on each of their venue sizes and can change as the province moves beyond Step 3.
Sherlock Holmes and the Raven’s Curse is a two-act play, with an intermission. It is on now until Oct. 10. Visit shawfest.com for information and tickets.