Review: Vertigo's Sherlock jams a lot of mayhem and mystery into lengthy play

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As Vertigo Theatre’s Ms Holmes & Ms Watson – #2B proves, you actually can get too much of a good thing.

The first 100 minutes of the Canadian premiere of Kate Hamill’s spoof of all things Sherlock Holmes is a wildly entertaining showcase for the extraordinary talents of its four cast members, particularly the irrepressible Julie Orton as Sherlock.

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Orton’s Sherlock is like a humming bee, constantly in motion, talking as fast as she moves, bouncing off furniture and even walls. Her body seems to be trying to catch up to her amazing mind and astonishing deduction skills.

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As she constantly tries to plant herself and take in what’s happening around her, Tahirih Vejdani’s Joan Watson is the perfect foil. They are the ideal odd couple that every good situation comedy needs.

All the male characters, including the narrator who opens the play with an accent as thick as a London fog, are played by a sly Graham Percy, and all the female characters, by a winningly unsubtle Camille Pavlenko.

Kathryn Smith’s direction is as witty, clever and creative as the spirited hijinx she has coaxed from her actors, especially when it comes to having them change the furniture to take Sherlock and Watson from their London flat to a couple of hotels, other flats, a train station, and several streets. Smith makes it clear the joke is on us if we think we’re supposed to take anything seriously, including the murders, the sleuthing, and double-crossing.

Graham Percy, Julie Orton, Camille Pavlenko, and Tahirih Vejdani in Vertigo Theatre’s Ms Holmes and Ms Watson. Photo, Fifth Wall Media Photo by Tim Nguyen Co. /Tim Nguyen Co.

Hamill has not only switched the genders of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic duo, but the era in which they lived and worked. We’re no longer in Victorian England, but a post-COVID London of 2021. The big joke is that Holmes is essentially stuck in that old Doyle world, having no knowledge of, or interest in, cellphones, social media and computers, much to the disbelief and exasperation of poor Watson.

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Before the curtain goes down, some 160 minutes after it first goes up, Sherlock has to solve four crimes. The first is the body in the bathtub, then the location of the sex tapes of an American politician, followed by the unmasking of a master criminal. The one that intrigues Holmes most, and the audience the least, is why her new roommate insists she is not, and never has been, a doctor.

It’s Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lestrade (Percy) who seeks Holmes’ help to find out who killed the cabbie Elliot Monk (Percy) in the seedy hotel room, and how. All the schtick with that body is one of the comic highlights of the show, especially when Watson gets trapped under it. Pavlenko gets to play Monk’s wife in the tradition of the frumpy British housewives the Monty Python, and Kids in the Hall actors made so popular. It’s also Smith’s way of admitting that, what Hamill has written, is just a series of Python and Kids style skits.

This bathtub murder leads Holmes and Watson into the world of the scarlet-haired dominatrix and blackmailer Irene Adler (Pavlenko) who has a sex tape of an American billionaire and wannabe politician. Smith doesn’t think Calgary audiences will get the joke so she has Percy enter wearing a Trump mask.

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The arrival of Irene brings with it a great deal of sexual tension, and the verbal seduction scenes between Adler and Sherlock are genuinely clever, beautifully punctuated by Vejdani’s reactions, and her obvious disdain for Adler. It’s this case that heralds the arrival of Sherlock’s nemesis, the evil mastermind Moriarty.

Sherlock doesn’t so much solve Watson’s secret as gets her to reveal it, which seems to be this Sherlock’s forte, as we saw in the other cases.

With the pre-show announcements and intermission, Ms Holmes & Ms Watson clocks in at just under three hours. For a Shakespeare, Chekov, Ibsen, Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams’ play, maybe that would be OK, but not an overwrought, self-congratulating, feminist homage to all things Sherlock. All the clever antics of the actors and director that initially seem so inventive, exciting and novel, begin to feel tired, as do the actors themselves. There is not enough real plot to keep an audience glued breathlessly for new revelations.

Ms Holmes & Ms Watson runs in the Vertigo Theatre at the base of the Calgary Tower until June 9.

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