Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s notorious attempt to kill off Sherlock Holmes was an infamous failure when an outraged public following demanded his resurrection and the author reluctantly obliged. Likewise, all attempts to bury the detective have proved impossible. His popularity is currently high. It was also buoyant in the mid-1980s due to the superb rendition of him for Granada Television by Jeremy Brett. It was something of a risk, then, when my first fringe theatre company Spare Parts decided to bring him to Lancashire both fictionally and theatrically. It was a gamble to pitch our Sherlock against what many regarded as the finest screen interpretation seen thus far. Some, including your scribe, consider Jeremy Brett’s performance still retains that ranking for the screen. Malcom Sim who played our Sherlock produced a comparable portrayal on the stage.
Sherlock Holmes remains the most portrayed movie character in history according to Guinness World Records with more than seventy actors playing the role in over two hundred films. Conan Doyle died in 1930 which meant that under the old (UK) copyright laws his works were free from restrictions by 1981. We could have adapted and staged any of his stories, but decided instead to create a completely new tale so that the detective could come to the part of England where we intended to tour the play. It wasn’t easy crafting a mystery that was both true to the tradition and fresh in plot and performance style but the struggle was worth it, and while were far from the first to place the detective on the Lancashire stage, we could well have been the first to provide him with a three-pipe problem in that county.
The evidence is where it always is, Watson: waiting to be found.
The plot centres around the unexplained deaths of exploited mill workers and also of the livestock of their wealthy employer. Holmes realises that the two are linked but in carrying out his investigations he arrives at the conclusion that the prime suspect for one of the deaths is none other than himself.
I cannot find a shred of evidence to eliminate me from my inquiry
Arriving at the core dilemma was satisfying but the joy was short lived in that the obviously needed resolution had to be worked out. In addition, to make the play really worthy, the reputation of Holmes needed to be on the line, he had to be put at risk physically, intellectually and professionally. All those strands had to lead directly from the rich carpet woven by Conan Doyle and tie up neatly with historical truth.
I suppose he will haunt us. We’ll see him pacing the grounds, forever looking for clues as to who killed him.
‘Playwright’ is a word that teachers of drama frequently have to correct in written work. It is often misspelled as playwrite. The ‘wright’ suffix is a noun meaning builder or maker. Scripting a play is more akin to building or crafting a physical object than is often realised. This is because the author actually is working on something physical – he or she is providing the blueprint plan for the multi-dimensional reality constructed in rehearsal. As well as resolving the plot and providing credible characters the play had to suit the style of the Spare Parts company. This was a traditional tale told in – for the time – an adventurously physical and theatrically spare manner. Full costume was used but there was no set, a very limited use of props, and only two upright chairs for furniture. The latter were used not only in their usual fashion, but also to suggest a succession of other structures: field stiles, stepping stones, manhole frames, a hen house, factory gates and so on.
You’re only immortal once.
The Spare Parts 1986 production duly took curtain calls at the Charter Theatre Preston, the Derby Hall Bury, the Town Hall Skipton and the Albert Dock in Liverpool.
We were one of the first theatre companies to perform at the refurbished Albert Dock. Although some sections had been occupied it was still awaiting its official opening and many of the units, including the space for the flagship Tate Gallery were not yet fitted out. The performance there was among our best, influenced, no doubt, by being incarcerated in surroundings from the correct period. The audience was very appreciative and it made a satisfying conclusion to our mini tour.
The play was published by New Playwrights’ Network and performed by other companies. In 2004 it was revised and partially re-written to suit a smaller cast for an uneasy theatre production – hence the uneasy show really did generate spare parts. The plot is essentially the same but is resolved more economically and even more theatrically. The NPN text can sometimes be found on sale for more than ten times its original retail price.
Spare Parts Theatre Company
Spare Parts was the first of several fringe companies to emerge from Fulwood Drama Workshop – a series of evening classes specialising in theatrical improvisation following the theories of Keith Johnstone.
It launched in 1984 with a large cast production of Dylan Thomas’ ‘prose with blood pressure’ play for voices Under Milk Wood at Preston’s Charter Theatre. Following that we were the first Preston company to stage the notorious, banned, sexual merry-go-round La Ronde by the Austrian playwright Arthur Schnitzler.
Also known as Reigen, the play caused anti-semitic riots and an uproar in Vienna following its first performance. There was an obscenity trial from which Schnitzler was acquitted, but public outrage forced him to withdraw the play. By modern standards the play is demonstrably tame but the subject matter was way ahead of its time. Penned in 1897 but not performed publicly until 1920, the play is a series of duologues depicting a cycle of sexual encounters starting with a prostitute and returning to her after ten scenes scaling the social ladder up to the status of a Count. The outrage was as much founded on the implied commonality of morals across the social strata as it was on the suggested interactions.
La Ronde inspired several films but the stage play remained under an injunction until the 1980s. John Barton’s Royal Shakespeare Company production premiered it in the UK in 1982 and we were the first to bring it to Preston where we performed it in the converted church Arts Centre of the Lancashire Polytechnic (now the University of Central Lancashire) on 30th November 1985 and a week later at Worden Arts Centre in Leyland.
Spare Parts also contributed to the first and second Preston Theatre Festivals with two original plays and staged a memorable Macbeth at Worden washing it down in the twin toilet setting of Willy Russell’s hen-night hilarity Stags n’Hens.
The following year the group dissolved and reformed as unstable productions to mount Pete Shaffer’s Equus.
Spare Parts Theatre Productions
Under Milk Wood (Dylan Thomas) June 1985
La Ronde (Arthur Schnitzler) November/December 1985
Checkout (Pete Hartley) February 1986
Macbeth (William Shakespeare) April 1986
Stags n’Hens (Willy Russell) June 1986
The Sherlock Holmes Solution July / August 1986
Workout (Pete Hartley) March 1987
The black and white photographs of rehearsals were taken by Malcolm Smith and feature Malcolm Sim, Tony Heyes, Susan Murphy, Katie Garment, Clita Johnrose and Janet Smithson.
The 2004 version of The Sherlock Holmes Solution is available as an eBook and also in paperback.
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