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REVIEW: Sherlock Holmes and the Whitechapel Fiend

Sherlock Holmes and the Whitechapel Fiend

Sherlock Holmes and the Whitechapel Fiend
Written by Toby Hulse & Ross Smith
Directed by Adam Meggido
The Barn Theatre, Cirencester
Monday, 29 January 2024

Rating: ★★★☆☆

When I was 13, I used to sit in front of the TV in tears of laughter as I watched The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town.  This was a comedy about a Victorian serial killer who murdered people by blowing raspberries.  Anticipating that Sherlock Holmes and the Whitechapel Fiend might tread similar ground, I recently re-watched The Phantom Raspberry Blower on YouTube.  I was ashamed that I had ever found it funny.  It contained things that we would now find highly offensive: sexist puns; sniggering sexual innuendo; an actress in blackface; and an antisemitic portrayal of Benjamin Disraeli.
And so, as I took my seat in the Barn Theatre, I had high hopes that Sherlock Holmes and the Whitechapel Fiend might resuscitate the Fogbound-Victorian-Serial-Killer-Comedy genre, and reclaim it for a modern audience.  Disappointingly, the play, written by Toby Hulse and Ross Smith, left my ribs pretty much untickled.
The play begins with a disquisition on how reportage distorts facts and spawns narrative clichés.  It feels like a media-studies lecture, minus the gags, and gets the evening off to a slow start.  Things eventually brighten up, as the actors pick up the pace and the play’s comic style takes shape.

Much of the humour will be familiar to fans of the Goes Wrong series, and it comes as no surprise that director Adam Meggido’s impressive CV includes Magic Goes Wrong and Peter Pan Goes Wrong.  A great deal of heavy lifting is done by alienating devices, such as breaking the fourth wall, referring to a performer by her real name, replacing performers with “better actors”, and indulging in a bit of comic business with an errant moustache.
Chief among the play’s comic conventions is promiscuous role-swapping.  Whoever wears the deerstalker is Holmes; the actor carrying the walking stick is Watson; the pink-apron-wearer is Mrs Hudson; and the one with the blue cloak is Lestrade.  This device allows different actors to portray the same character in ways that are sometimes complementary, sometimes conflicting.  The small cast – Joseph Chance, Helen Foster, Phillip Pellew and Chloe Tannenbaum – inhabit their multiple roles with evident glee and an exhilarating whiff of mischief.
Running gags and ‘meta gags’ abound.  The exceptional qualities of Mrs Hudson’s narratively significant marmalade are regularly extolled.  Authors interact with their own creations, and there are intrusions from other fictional universes.  In one particularly funny sequence, a cavalcade of Dickens characters (played in super-quick succession by the versatile Chloe Tannenbaum) accost Holmes and Mrs Hudson as they walk, run and cycle through the streets of London.  A dog with a string of sausages – an escapee from the Beano? – provides a smile-inducing call-back.
At intervals, ‘Ripperologists’ explain their theories about Jack the Ripper’s identity, that most of his victims were not prostitutes, and how modern-day punters, greedy for ‘merch’, are milked during tours of Whitechapel.  These monologues provide a critique of the more cynical aspects of the ‘Ripperology’ industry.  However, given that Sherlock Holmes and the Whitechapel Fiend is itself an entertainment about Jack the Ripper, it seems to me that the play is skewered by its own argument.  How is this production distinguishable from any other ‘Ripperological’ product? Sherlock Holmes and the Whitechapel Fiend leaves the question unanswered.

N.B. Contains flashing lights and sudden surprises
Running time: 2 hours 05 minutes (including interval)
“Sherlock Holmes and the Whitechapel Fiend” runs at the Barn Theatre, Cirencester, until Saturday 9 March 2024.

Reviewer: Paul Sharples
Explore Gloucestershire
31 January 2024

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