Theatre on Zoom is difficult enough. Interactive theatre on Zoom sounds all but impossible – but seasoned troubadours The Pantaloons have risen to the challenge, with a show that’s three-parts online performance and one-part unruly conference call. It’s undeniably surreal, and it could have been truly painful, but The Pantaloons – cleverly, daringly, magnificently – choose not just to acknowledge that weirdness, but to put it right at the heart of what they do.
Sherlock Holmes: Stay Holmes is a remix of a more conventional script which, had things gone to plan, The Pantaloons would be touring through outdoor venues this summer. The robustness and physicality of that stage show does still come through – though it’s wisely scaled-back for this more close-up performance. The banter between the actors works well too; little seems lost in the way of rapport just because they’re appearing in separate video streams.
But what truly defines Stay Holmes is the way it extends that concept out to the audience sitting at home. Don’t worry: you can keep your camera off if you prefer to, and on the day I attended a good half of the crowd chose to enjoy it that way. But if you’re willing, you may find The Pantaloons paying a virtual visit to your own living room – getting you up on the video feed as an extra in a crowd scene, or even letting Sherlock work his powers of deduction on aspects of your own daily life.
The experience is so novel that the storyline’s almost incidental, but here for the record is roughly how it goes. We get a brief but faithful canter through three classic Strand Magazine stories – all framed by a fourth narrative, which takes a few more liberties with an iconic original plot. If you know the canon you’ll always be a few steps ahead of our heroes, and maybe the drama does lose some fizz as a result. But the dialogue’s lively and the jokes are endearing; and there’s an enjoyable puzzle threaded through the narrative, which (if you choose to try to solve it) will keep you pleasantly on your toes.
In an inspired move, the three short stories are told as flashbacks by a gender-inverted cast. In the outer story, meanwhile, Sherlock’s played by Edward Ferrow – whose untamed hair and dashingly undone shirt owe as much to Poldark as to Conan Doyle. In the flashbacks, on the other hand, we have the clean-cut Kelly Griffiths – who makes the younger Holmes a little posher, a little cleverer, and a lot more pleased with himself. The imperious Griffiths and raffish Ferrow play perfectly off each other, delivering plenty of humour while also gently hinting at how Holmes’s life experiences have changed him.
As the older Watson, Christopher Smart has the bewildered look spot-on, but he also gets to deliver the play’s only truly serious lines. He performs that task with sudden and unexpected sensitivity, showing that even the most time-worn of characters can form connections that make you care. The on-screen quartet is completed by Alex Rivers, who is maybe the most enjoyable as a thoroughly mischievous Moriarty, running rings round Ferrow’s Holmes in almost literal style.
Huge credit also belongs to producer-technician Mark Hayward, whose unseen hand operates miniature cut-out figures to tell the parts of the story that just can’t be accommodated on Zoom. That adorably lo-fi aesthetic carries over to the live-action scenes, with cardboard frames around the cameras in place of the set, and a fair few wonky cardboard props being brandished too. Yet the production values remain high, and the lighting for Ferrow and Rivers’ scenes in particular adds plenty to the tone and mood.
I’m not going to pretend that theatre on Zoom is as good as the real thing – and I’m sure that everyone involved in this production can’t wait to get on the road again. But constraints beget creativity, and The Pantaloons’ approach to these strangest of times is bold, smart, and funny. It’s more than just a reminder of what we’re missing; it’s a fascinating experiment with an untapped new medium. Most of all, it’ll lighten your heart… so sign up, dial in, and enjoy.
Tickets for the 17 July performance of Sherlock Holmes: Stay Holmes are available to buy here