The Secret of Sherlock Holmes

I had started to write this review after going to see “The Secret of Sherlock Holmes” starring Peter Egan and Robert Daws at the Duchess Theatre, Drury Lane, London back in 2010 but got distracted with other matters.

With the sad passing of one of the best actors to portray me, Edward Hardwicke, in May 2011, I was reminded that he played me alongside Jeremy Brett’s Holmes in the same play when it was originally brought to the stage through a collaboration between Brett and Jeremy Paul who dramatised a number of my stories for the Granada Television Sherlock Holmes series. Jeremy Paul also sadly died in May 2011.

The play itself is very much a story in two parts. Act 1 is a compendium of elements from the Canon, starting from our first meeting and what led up to it and ending with Holmes disappearance at the Reichenbach Falls, somewhat rapidly followed by his startling return, seven years later, causing me to faint. So at the end of the first act I am out for the count!

This first act, except for maybe the closing few minutes, is like nestling down in your favourite armchair with a pipe, a drink and a favourite book. The latter in this case being the whole Canon. I sat there during this first act with my own words flowing from the two actors towards me causing me to smile, laugh, and even shed an occasional tear as the memories also came back to me.

Act 2 is an entirely different matter. I will not spoil your potential enjoyment of the whole play by revealing the detail of what “The Secret” is except to say that it involves Moriarty and who he really is.

The play can be a disappointment to those expecting a classic case consisting of a problem, an investigation and a solution. All three elements are, in fact present, but not in the form you might usually expect.

I do have a concern about the basic tenet of the case, if I can call it that. It is another of those devices that authors, film-makers and playwrights use to extend our relationship and our adventures together into areas where they do not belong and manipulate our characters in a way that at least stretches credulity and at its worst I find distasteful. Although I cannot claim to know all there is to know about Holmes, we have spent a good deal of time together, sometimes under very difficult, not to say dangerous, circumstances and I find suggestions of this sort unpalatable. I have read Michael Dibdins “The Last Sherlock Holmes Story” and found it distasteful for these same reasons.

Back to the play and Peter Egan does a reasonable job portraying Holmes but he is no match for Brett. I suspect that those who were lucky enough to see the Brett/Hardwicke version of the play thought they were seeing Holmes playing Brett rather than the other way round. I have also seen Egan (with Philip Franks) in The Hound of the Baskervilles and in this Egan seemed to cope with this much better. I could believe he was Holmes in The Hound. In The Secret he was less comfortable and therefore less believable. This strain showed but may have benficial in adding to the required characterisation in Act 2.

Robert Daws is perhaps a little more emotional than me but he handles Holmes’ occasional put-down (“It is true that you have missed everything of importance”) very well, and many must wonder why he (or rather I) put up with Holmes for so long given the apparent disdain with which he refers to my attempts at deduction.

Going back to the original Brett/Hardwicke performance, the reviews were at the time much kinder than for the more recent Egan/Daws performance – largely I suspect because Brett had become the definitive Holmes of recent times.

The script of the play was first published in 1989 but is now difficult to find in the UK though it is apparently easily available in the USA (from where obtained my copy). A recording of one of the Brett/Hardwicke performance by a member of the audience has recently come to light but, of course, being recorded from audience is not of very good quality. I am not aware of any recordings of the Egan/Daws presentation. The play is also run occasionally in the USA and one of my favourite podcasts, I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere, interviewed the team responsible for one such production in 2007.

Something I learned from Hardwicke is that Brett performed the play at the Mayfair Theatre as a private performance to an invited audience before the full public production. This version had a narrator and some of my words were delivered by a third person so there were three people performing this version.

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