WILLIAM Hooker Gillette was America’s foremost actor-manager at the turn of the last century, and when Arthur Conan Doyle was looking to extend his own income from Sherlock Holmes by transferring him to the stage, Gillette was an obvious choice for a collaboration, as writer and actor.
The resulting play, Sherlock Holmes, ran for many years, with productions running simultaneously in England, Scotland, the USA and all over Europe, with Gillette playing Holmes more than 1300 times including in a seven-reel silent film in 1916. Playwright Ken Ludwig, best known for adapting the Gershwins’ Girl Crazy into Crazy For You, took this Victorian star, along with his “castle” which still exists in Connecticut, and wrote tonight’s comedy-mystery around them, winning the Edgar Allan Poe award for it in 2011.
Motcombe Community Players have acquired a loyal following over the past few years, with productions in St Mary’s Church and the Memorial Hall selling out, and it was great to be watching as part of another capacity audience this evening. Director Rosie King has certainly developed a talent for casting the right people in the right roles, and for corralling them together to great effect. This evening’s actors are almost given their own review in the programme for this play, but it would be too easy to merely quote the director’s own opinion of the acting talent, especially as the person who “shapes up well” is one of the stars of the show!
Leading the company as Gillette is Fred Wopat, so memorable as Macduff at Shaftesbury a couple of years ago, bringing just the right balance between character and caricature to what could be taken too far. He is playing a Victorian actor-manager, but he also shows sensitivity and control, as well as great physicality and expression. As his mother Martha, Cherry Alderman shows that she can act any age, from a teenager in Daisy Pulls it Off to this wonderfully dotty portrayal. There are two couples in the play, both completely convincing. Simple Simon and innocent Aggie are played by Alex Chase and Bex Greenway, with Alex delivering some great one-liners and Bex playing innocence so well, especially when compared with her recent leading role in Going Going. Playing Felix and Madge are John Laing, most recently seen as mono-syllabic flare-wearing Tony in Abigail’s Party and before that as a schoolboy, and pantomime Dame, and Wendy Ibbotson, the dowdy Susan at the same party, naughty schoolgirl in Daisy and King Rat in panto. These two are surely Motcombe’s greatest acting couple – they work so well together, and give great moments of humour as they jibe and dig at each other. Laing is also a master of physical expression, and one interaction between Felix and Gillette at the beginning of Act Two has surely the most expressive eyebrow action seen locally for many years.
Into the fray of Gillette’s acting company, called to his castle for Christmas Eve dinner, sweeps glamorous arch-critic and sometime medium Daria Chase, hated by most of the acting company, and played with great gusto and reality, like Dorothy Parker playing Lady Bracknell, by Brenda White. She does not last long, but even when dead she uses her training to great effect with some serious physical acting, especially with Laing and Wopat. As usual when someone is murdered we need a police presence, provided by Jess Sims as Inspector Goring, and she brings a majestic stage presence, with great timing on her more humorous lines, and some lovely verse speaking as she recalls her days of wanting to act.
Keith Alderman, Sarah Upshall and their teams have produced a great set and costumes respectively, and Rosie has produced yet another show that will surely maintain the reputation and calibre of this great local company. If you didn’t get a ticket for this one, keep your eyes peeled for the next.