[The following contains spoilers.]
The Alleynes Fringe Project earns a special commendation for taking on Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902): a novel which has been adapted and parodied countless times already, and which is hardly the easiest literary classic to stage. The company are from Staffordshire and their play is presently running at theSpace on Jeffrey Street. Alleynes are also – and I have mixed feelings about this – a school.
They are a school in disguise. Alleynes have been sent to the Fringe by a comprehensive and the cast are aged between sixteen and eighteen. It is a good disguise: I was only uncertain about them being undergraduates because the university is usually named on the posters and flyers. I can fully understand why they want to compete with professional theatre companies on a level field (though a couple of these actors already have professional experience), but some theatregoers might still feel that they have been lured into watching a community project. I am all at sixes and sevens over this school. I was going to make some stern criticisms of their play, but now that my research has ascertained how young they are, I have to be impressed by their professionalism.
Let’s stick to pretending that they’re an adult theatre company and bash on. The entire play is set in a comfortable room in Baskerville Hall and this domestic interior supplies the function of a protective pentacle, with the darkness and murders confined outside of it. The downside of this strategy is that there is a lot more conversation than action please, and the cast are far more adept at the action.
There is some good jumpy slapstick when the insensitive Holmes (George Edwards) whips a corpse off a sofa so that he can sit down. A master and servant bump into each other in another jumpy, screamy encounter in the dark. The soundscaping is effectively creepy and the cast are also, it has to be noted, beautifully tailored. Yet these characters are often in a flap, breathlessly recounting the backstories of the neighbouring gentry, and never really establishing why the jittery Sir Henry Baskerville (Joe Mathews) does not take his inheritance and simply leave the moor where his life remains in such danger. It is also inevitable that whoever murders Baskerville will be identified anyway when they inherit his fortune, rendering any elaborate conspiracy somewhat redundant.
This is a towering, booming Holmes who looks down his nose at everybody. He is a bumptious, rather martial figure, conspicuously like the Duke of Wellington. There is a jolly, refreshingly uncomplicated friendship between him and Watson. We are, of course, waiting throughout the whole play to see what they will make of the dog. Will it be a huge puppet or somebody in a costume? Will it be hairy or slimy? I personally thought that it was extremely cool and stylish when Holmes explained away the hound at the end of the play, as if in passing, in a single sentence. Nonetheless, family theatregoers might feel aggrieved – they are due a dog. The quality of the drama may render GCSEs superfluous, but they should still rope in the art department to build some gigantic cardboard hell-hound.