A new Alley Theatre production is always cause for excitement. The intimate venue in downtown Houston is one of the many cultural gems that makes me proud to live in this city. There isn’t a bad seat in the house, prices are reasonable, the crowd is sophisticated but not stuffy, parking’s convenient, and most importantly, season after season they fill the stage with a variety of plays and musicals that I actually want to see. Alley Theatre is my favorite place in H-Town to catch a live theatrical performance and I recently had the pleasure of checking out their latest, the entertaining and totally twisty mystery, Holmes and Watson.
There’s no shortage of plays or movies featuring the iconic characters created so long ago by British author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes, the case sleuthing, pipe smoking, double-brimmed hat rocking, know-it-all detective, has appeared on the silver screen no less than 254 times, a Guinness World Record (most frequently portrayed human literary character). He’s been played by the likes of Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Robert Stephens, Nicol Williamson, Christopher Plummer, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch, and Will Ferrell, among others. I’ve seen dozens of films and television shows featuring the inimitable detective and his right hand man, friend and biographer, Dr. Watson, but I had never seen them portrayed on stage in a live production.
Holmes and Watson is the name of the play, however, a more accurate title would have been Watson and Holmes. The new mystery by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher (author of the 2013 Alley production, Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Suicide Club and the 2015 film, Mr. Holmes) puts a fun spin on the proceedings by thrusting the sidekick into the spotlight in a clever yarn that has Watson investigating the death (or fake death?) of Sherlock. Check out the overview:
Three years after the mysterious death of beloved detective Sherlock Holmes off Reichenbach Falls, Dr. John H. Watson receives a telegram that suggests his old friend may still be alive. The mysterious wire was sent from a doctor who states that three patients in his asylum’s care have each claimed to be the late Sherlock Holmes. Watson embarks on a journey to disprove these claims. Could Sherlock Holmes really be alive after all this time? Holmes and Watson is a riveting new adventure from award-winning writer Jeffrey Hatcher.
Exciting! Pitting Watson as the lead and Sherlock as the subject of investigation is an interesting change of formula. It feels like a test of sorts for Dr. Watson, who is curious and observant, but less astute at deduction than the master sleuth who’s shadow he’s dwelled in for years. It’s fun to see the good doc get his day in the sun and it’s a great idea for a one-off story, but it goes without saying that the changeup is not something you’d want to see on a permanent basis. The dynamic duo effectively complement each other and their interplay is an integral element of a Sherlock Holmes tale.
Mark Shanahan was a natural choice to direct after helming the Alley Theatre’s production of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps last summer, which had a similar vibe (and was a fantastic show). Holmes and Watson moves at a fast pace and is a breezy 1 hour and 25 minutes with no intermission. It features a simple set with a small cast of 7 or 8 characters, including an uncredited cameo that is fun for regular patrons of the Alley Theatre (no spoilers here). Dr. Watson is played by Jeremy Webb, who returns to the Alley after previously appearing in A Few Good Men, Fool, Dracula, and The Foreigner. He embodies Watson well, and if he doesn’t command the stage like some of the supporting characters, it isn’t because of his performance, it’s because of the nature of the character he’s playing.
Bruce Warren is back after making an impression in the Alley Theatre’s production of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. He has another memorable turn here, this time as Dr. Evans, head of the asylum. His animated expressions remind me of a cartoon villain come to life. Alley vets Jay Sullivan and Elizabeth Bunch also grace the stage. They performed in Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, and dozens of other Alley Theatre productions and are welcome additions to any cast.
The theatre was full, the show was fun, and the crowd was into it — there was a standing ovation. While I liked the play and enjoyed another fun night at the theatre, I will admit that the big twists in the story left me scratching my head a little in the end. Is Holmes and Watson too clever for it’s own good? Eh, maybe, but it’s possible that I’m just too slow for Holmes and Watson. Or in this case, Watson and Holmes.
Holmes and Watson is now playing at the Alley Theatre through July 22nd. Recommended for adults and kids ages 10 and older. Tickets available here.
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