Miss Holmes, currently playing at the Lifeline Theatre from September 9 – October 30th is a gender-swapped reimagining of Holmes and Watson. This may put some people off from the very first, but if you allow it to sway you, you will be missing as fine and entertaining a Sherlock Holmes play as any ever staged. Because that is what this is, A Sherlock Holmes play with all the characters you remember behaving as they characteristically do.
Holmes is brilliant and a master of deductive reasoning. Watson is empathetic and brave and clever. Lestrade is honest, but at a loss. Mycroft is mysterious and overbearing. Mrs. Hudson, traditional and motherly.
The play’s conceit is to invite us to imagine if the characters we know and love had been born at the same time, only as women. What challenges would they have faced in expressing their innate natures? This is the question the play by Christopher M. Walsh sets for itself while at the same time giving us an original Sherlock Holmes mystery to be investigated and solved using Holmes’ patented methods.
It is, in fact, when Holmes is using ratiocination to tell us all about someone that the play truly shines, as does Katie McLain Hainsworth as Sherlock Holmes. Her interpretation leans a bit more on contemporary, eternally-exasperated and rapid-fire Cumberbatch than note-perfect, snide Brett, but her Holmes is a credit to Conan Doyle’s creation as read on the pages of his stories and novels. She sometimes speaks a bit too quickly, and as some of the blocking has her turning away from the audience to speak to various other characters, sometimes the ends of her lines are lost. And there are great, intelligent and funny lines in this play. It’s a shame to lose any of them.
The playwright, Christopher M. Walsh, should particularly be commended. He has captured both Holmes and Watson’s characteristic ways of speaking and translated them to an entirely new mystery. One that is engaging and contains a twist or two and uses the fact that the main characters are now women to further the action and the plot. The gender-swap is not a bug, it’s a feature.
The fact that Holmes and Watson are now women merely adds a few more hurdles in their way, which the play deals with excellently. It’s clearly a feminist take on the subject and does shine a light on what women of the era faced when they attempted behavior deemed radically unconventional, but no more so than does George Gissing, Thomas Hardy or Virginia Woolf.
There are numerous callbacks to obscure bits of Sherlockiana including Stamford, the man who introduces Holmes and Watson in “A Study in Scarlet,” appearing here as Watson’s prospective beau and actually helping them at a crucial moment (and played charmingly by Michael Reyes). Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars becoming Sherlock’s Knitting Circle consisting of a network of nosy old ladies and shop girls passing on all the news as well as other examples.
Mandy Walsh as Dr. Dorothy Watson is not only everything one could ask for in a stalwart sidekick, but she makes a case for the women who struggled to pioneer medicine as well. And her accent, voice and delivery is so very much like Deborah Kerr that it’s almost uncanny. While her scenes with Holmes are wonderful, she carries much of the play, herself, and that is just fine, as she is a superb Watson. Watson is our narrator, after all, and her point of view is what draws us in. I have no idea why she is not Jane Watson, however, an interesting choice on the playwright’s part.
The basic plot set up also stems from the gender-swapped nature of Holmes and Watson. The fact that they are women allows women to come to them in confidence with their problems, problems they don’t dare discuss with men. And that is where the mystery begins as Mrs. Lizzie Chapman, wife of Detective Chapman of Scotland Yard, needs help to discover who is behind the mysterious letters she is receiving warning her to beware of her husband.
I can’t discuss more without giving away portions of the mystery, but I need to laud the supporting cast, who do a great deal of heavy lifting, many in multiple, diverse and interesting roles. Abie Irabor is a delight whenever she’s on stage, whether she’s grumbling about irregularity as Mrs. Hudson, mentoring Watson as Dr. Anderson or engaging in geriatric paranoia as Eudora Featherstone. Kate Nawrocki as the client, Mrs. Chapman, the maid Peggy, or Martha, parades different regional and ethnic accents, physical attitudes and makes you forget you just saw her a moment ago as someone else. LaQuin Groves plays two characters of entirely different social classes and educational levels to the point where you can imagine their lives beyond the confines of the play. John Henry Roberts as Det. Chapman is as menacing a heavy as you could wish and bleeds lower-class London striver all over the stage. And Christopher Jones is the nicest Lestrade ever, and I’m going to fault or credit the writing here. Lestrade in Doyle comes off both dim and self-serving and is usually played a bit less posh than he appears here. This Lestrade is a dedicated public servant who understands his own limitations as is willing to go out on a limb to help Holmes when he sees she might be able to give him the proof he needs to close a case. He’s warm and sympathetic and you like him very much.
The show is well lighted, well designed, well costumed (other than Watson’s trousers) and you can mostly hear well except when Holmes turns toward the back of the stage in the “Baker Street” portion of the set. The one real oddity is the level of refrigeration in the space, however. I have never attended a theatre where they felt compelled to put blankets on the chairs. I was very grateful for mine by the second act. Take a sweater when you go. Because you should go, right away, and see this wonderful, original Sherlock Holmes mystery.
For more information or to purchase tickets contact Lifeline Theatre.
Production photos courtesy of Suzanne Plunkett.