Brighton Fringe 2021
Co-writers Bert Coules directs and Tim Marriott acts this one-man show at the Rialto. Smokescreen Productions utilise Rialto tech support. Till June 17th. It will tour. Look up Smokescreen Productions and se its sister show Waiting for Hamlet on 19th and 20th at the same venue.
The Final Problem. We know it, and we’ve been to the Riechnbach Falls, of course. And Bert Coules and Tim Marriott – also director and actor respectively – aren’t twisting Conan Doyle’s story. They amplify it though. Watson’s ailing wife, that first explosion hurling Watson down to an explosion and flash of lights.
Afghanistan and the wounds that took Watson out of the army and into impecunious private practice. The Second Afghan war of 1878, not the Fourth of recent memory allowing BBC TV’s Sherlock to startle us with contemporary relevance. This is strictly period and so are the few props and costume, all that’s needed in this satisfying Smokescreen Productions retelling. We hear flickerings of the old tales, The Case of the Speckled Band, an adder-flick of the old forked tongue brilliance, and it’s gone. Coules and Marriott know to telescope all into the final chapter, as understood by Watson in 1894.
We know the rest; perhaps. Marriott, looking the part opens his final story now in 1894, retelling the events of three years ago, namely what led to May 4th 1891. He eventually closes with his book too, though is that all?
Whilst Mary’s away recuperating and visiting Holmes lets himself into the Watsons’ home secretly, looking haggard. He unfolds the appearance of a worthy adversary, Moriarty Professor of Mathematics (debarred) aka The Napoleon of Crime (one does inadvertently recall T.S. Eliot’s McCavity at this point). Only now can Holmes reveal a smidgeon of plot. Conan Doyle is of course exquisitely vague about this; we see that first appearance of evil masterminds undermining Britain, empire, civilisation itself, taken on by Erskine Childers, John Buchan, the whole subsequent tradition.
This original and genuine is more fascinating. The shadow self Holmes feels he could have become with a few twists. A mind so like his own that took a different turning. Watson relates all this against the findings of new science, new that is to the 1890s, in fact just slightly ahead. It’s one of those moments you return to check your sources.
Marriott adds a measure of dignity as well as distinction as he retells the thrilling tragic and redemptive tale of how he accompanies his friend abroad as the great trap is sprung on Moriarty’s vast organisation sucking half of London to death. Through twists and turns with a fine sound design we get all the jumpings-off from trains, doubling back and Swiss air, the double-crossing note sending Watson away from Holmes for a few hours. And that final note.
Marriott’s Watson closes his tale in bitter desperate solitude. Mournful, almost suicidal, he hears voices in his head. There is perhaps another way. Marriott catches all this, behind the bluff and cordial so often parodied. Rarely have we seen Watson so flayed, so vulnerable, so black with despair it touches Holmes’ own restless terror of emptiness. Are we leaving it there?
Marriott’s rendition is then consummate, as you’d expect from this actor, and Coules’ direction with its light and sound cues expertly tailored to a show that, however familiar it might seem, never drags in its hour’s telling.
This is certainly the way to experience The Final Problem. It’s a flawless conception, modest in scope but perfectly nuanced and affecting. It notches up further too because of Marriott’s acting skill and Coules’ crisp, economical though punchy light and sound effects – which are mainstream theatre standard but fined down to intimacy. The production doesn’t break much new ground, though there’s a little. That’s not its point. It sends me back to the stories.
Whether or not you’re a Sherlock or wider Conan Doyle reader, you’ll want to see this if you have any love for that swirl and danger and that sense of – as he doesn’t say here – ‘The game’s afoot..’