The Hound of the Baskervilles @ Genesian Theatre

Genesian Theatre never fails to come up with the goods, and this time they’ve done it again with a slapstick interpretation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles featuring – gasp! – a woman in the role of Sherlock Holmes and gasp! – another woman as Doctor Watson. While gender-bended casting has been around for quite some time (since Elizabethan times, in fact), it may feel like a departure for Genesian theatre-goers that love to see a traditional interpretation of the classics. However, the audience on opening night got totally behind the casting choices for this one and were in for a fantastic ride.

First, a note about the plot – this is perhaps the most supernatural story out of the entire Sherlock Holmes series, with more red herrings than John West can can. Holmes is notably absent for most of the story, delegating the detective work to Watson of why a generation of privileged white men are suddenly dying at the estate of the Baskervilles. It is suspected that the spirit of a grisly hound which hunted down and killed the first Baskerville is out to haunt them. But why? And how?

This adaptation by Steven Canny and John Nicholson pokes fun at the stuffiness of quaint storytelling, proverbially sticking a brolly up the backside of traditional gender roles as depicted in the book (i.e. the men are rational and brave, while the women are weepy, compliant and valorised for their beauty).

Act 1 had the audiences in stitches, with hilarious meta-storytelling to guide the audience along through the dense marshes of Doyle’s landscape. There are deliberate false starts, and plenty of madcap antics to feel fully engaged in a story that doesn’t always quite make sense. Doyle created a plethora of characters in a convoluted mix of subplots; there’s a murderous convict on the loose, and a butterfly catcher called Stapleton who isn’t really Stapleton, and his sister who isn’t really his sister…and on it goes. The choice to omit the subplot involving Mrs Laura Lyons is a wise one; she’s another ‘beautiful woman’ forced to be secretive about her involvement in the death of Sir Charles Baskerville, who is found dead in the garden at a strange hour in the morning.

If Act 1 was supremely masterful that you simply couldn’t ask for more, Act 2 seemed to get a little caught up in its own antics. There’s something about an interval between Act 1 and Act 2 that satiates the audience, thus increasing the appetite for a riveting finish. Act 2 started off with a complete recap of Act 1, because ‘someone out there tweeted that they didn’t like the show’; (don’t worry, it’s all part of the meta-script). The fast-forward re-enactment was quite good, as was the courtship dance between Henry Baskerville and Miss Stapleton. But aside from these outstanding moments, the objective of the characters seemed a bit lost. It’s like showing all the cards too soon, leaving no new material left to play with.

In Act 2, it might have been a bit stronger to give the characters their original objectives to work with, facing a real sense of danger, to fight for their lives, by somehow bringing the monstrosity of the hound to life, which is the climax in the book. There are a few curdling howling and growling sound effects signifying the hound, but a few gunshots towards it, and it’s…gone. Making the hound standout for all the supernatural horror that it is, that left poor Henry Baskerville with a weakened heart, would have made for a more thrilling finish.

Feedback aside, this almost-perfect production makes incredible use of three actors playing the vast array of roles, with a heightened degree of finesse and irreverence. Alyona Popova captialises on her inner serious clown by playing a Russian actor / cockney English folk / Sherlock Holmes with rebellious ‘up-yours’ authority. When she gutturally demands “we’re going to do Act 1 – AGAIN!!” you better believe her.

Kate Easlea is equally fun as the androgynous Doctor Watson, dressed in a long black power suit and bowler hat. Her narrative as Watson perfectly aligns with the book, writing in her journal, navigating the dangerous detective work she’s undertaken, and feeling hurt when Holmes finally reappears and doesn’t seem to care for her copious letters full of discoveries. She wants Holmes to be proud of her. If Popova is the serious clown as Holmes, then Watson as played by Easlea is like a Labrador: loyal, intelligent but goofy, beaming when praise is given and oh-so adorable.

Oliver Harcourt-Ham turns in a brave performance in multi-roles including the often hapless, trouser-less and shirtless Henry Baskerville, the heir to the estate and next in line for a Baskerville murder. He confesses out loud he “can’t do a Canadian accent” as per Henry’s nationality in the book, but boy can he run across that stage with an extraordinary amount of energy without being out of breath. His naive, vulnerable and sweetly awkward performance was well received by the crowd.

Duncan Cole as stage manager did a great job shoving huge props across the stage without killing anyone, and along with set construction by Tom Fahy, Paul Gilbert and Peter Curtis, created a magical environment for the actors to work in, seamlessly transitioning from night / day and interiors / exteriors. The fog was a fantastic atmospheric special effect, and the foyer artwork by Emily Saint Smith was also a nice touch (‘parachute for sale…only used once, never opened’).

Lighting and sound by Michael Schell added ambience and colour to the dull and dreary environment described in the book. The intensity of vibrant purple hues gave a rich, supernatural vibe to the cold Baskerville setting.

Costuming by Susan Carveth created fun outfits for the characters while making it easy to distinguish who’s who. It must have been no mean feat to change costumes several times when switching between characters, but this production was fully committed to that choice and it worked beautifully. Miss Stapleton became mysterious, Master Stapleton became malevolent and Sherlock Holmes became magnificent.

Finally, Richard Cotter as director gave a tremendous gift to his audience, a box full of surprises with lots of pranks and practical jokes that allowed the actors to engage and play. It’s always a treasure to see his work on stage and watch the actors embodying his vision.

Overall, this colourful production with bold casting choices and direction made this interpretation of Sherlock Holmes incredibly fun to watch, and more relevant, accessible and loveable than ever.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is playing at Genesian Theatre until 17 June 2023. For tickets and showtimes go to

Images: LSH Media

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