Brighton Fringe 2011
Dynamic duo of sketch comedy Max and Ivan present their first narrative driven hour, based on Baker Street’s most famous detective.
Max and Ivan’s first story-based show follows a Sherlock past his prime: a decaying mind of an erstwhile genius, dragged on one final adventure to save his friend and partner John Watson.
Rather than parodying the trademark tropes of Holmes and Watson, the show instead takes two vague representations of the characters and flings them head-first into a much weirder, wackier adventure than you might expect. Max and Ivan flip with gusto from absurdity to absurdity: henchmen who can transform into inanimate objects, raunchy cabaret singers and grotesque prostitutes are all performed with endearing over-the-top-ness (yes) by a pair of versatile and talented comic actors.
Max and Ivan clearly have a very strong show in the making, and there’s a hell of a lot to recommend here. Every character (and there are a lot of them) is brought to life with enthusiasm; they successfully create their own bizarre little world on-stage through clever direction and great performances. Both men are genuinely and consistently funny throughout, and the show is rammed with good lines and several moments of wonderful physical comedy.
The pair appear to have been taking lessons from the likes of comedy contemporaries The Pajama Men and Joe Bone’s Bane trilogy – eschewing props and costume and allowing their voices and physicality to do all the work. This approach works in their favour: both performers are consistently impressive, with some exceptionally well-realised characters: Max’s twisted Moriarty is perhaps the best character in the whole thing, while Ivan’s grotesque female characters are disturbing and delightful in equal measure. Both have a knack for creating weirdly endearing characters with a darker streak, and hurl them at the audience with boundless energy. The world they create and revel in is remarkably well portrayed – the street scenes and the musical additions with their voices were particularly clever touches.
There are some issues with the show, however, and these currently lie with the writing. There are very few concessions to the source material – and this is actually a bit of a shame. Perhaps my pre-show expectations coloured my enjoyment of the show a bit too much, but there’s an awful lot of material in the Holmes and Watson stories that seemed neglected. The Holmes-Watson relationship, for example, has bucket-loads of potential for funny and interesting character material, jokes and references, but this is barely touched on. In fact, London’s most famous detective double-act actually spend the majority of the show apart from each other.
We catch a tiny glimpse of their current relationship at the beginning of the show – a vacuous, childish Holmes irritating a Watson who can’t deal with him any more – and Watson is whisked away before we can see any more of it. There’s a flash of sympathy for Holmes, but nothing more. Later, in the final minutes, there’s a touching moment of affection to round off the show and their relationship – a fantastic, heart-warming, tender note to end on, but one which could have had double the impact if more time had been spent on Holmes and Watson’s relationship in the rest of the show. There’s potential here that, unfortunately, was not fully realised. It would have been excellent to see a double act in Holmes and Watson that paralleled Max and Ivan, but the audience isn’t shown anywhere near enough of that dynamic.
There was another opportunity missed with the writing of the characters: Max and Ivan have written a Holmes past his prime, many years past from his glory days. There’s a throwaway joke towards the end of the show where Watson cries out "I’m 80!"; oddly, it drew attention to the fact that both Holmes and Watson should have appeared older than they were performed. The show is set in the 1920s – a lot of comic potential lies in a much more ancient, physically inept Holmes and Watson, but this is never touched upon. It feels like something that might have been overlooked.
Max and Ivan are clearly happy not to tap too much of the source material for their show – instead, they use the characters as a springboard for their own daft comedy imaginings. On a personal level, I would have enjoyed the show more if it had felt more "Sherlock Holmes-y" – and while perhaps I shouldn’t criticise the show for doing something different, audience members expecting something more in-keeping with the Holmes universe might be disappointed.
There are a couple of other issues in the writing which could easily be ironed out before the show hits the Edinburgh Fringe: a couple of little self-aware references (the seemingly scripted "this is a show/you’re watching a show!" lines) occasionally grate, and the climactic third act – with the evil plot that needs un-doing – feels a tad rushed. These issues are ultimately what prevented an otherwise excellent show from earning a higher score here: with a bit of reworking and sharpening of the narrative arc is needed, and perhaps would allow us to see more of the relationship that makes the original Holmes and Watson so fascinating.
Max and Ivan are taking Holmes and Watson up to the Edinburgh Fringe this year, and I suspect it’ll be deservedly successful. The duo work phenomenally well together and clearly have a ball on stage – all the makings of an excellent show are present here. The issues with the writing did mean this show was bordering on three stars for me, but it wins four due to its two terrific comedy performers and their inventive approach to creating their world on stage.
All credit to Max and Ivan – although they keep Holmes and Watson apart from much of their show, these two are the real double act you want to see: go and catch them when you can.