One of many releases timed to coincide with the Titanic centenary, this audio play runs the risk of being taken for just another chair on a very overcrowded deck (sic). Which would be a great shame, because this has almost everything a Holmes pastiche should have: a script that adds to the mythos without subtracting from the canon, superb production values and strong performances. And crucially, the role of the Titanic isn’t just a gimmick, presenting the tragedy with intelligence and tact as a personal and a historical disaster to provide original insight into real and fictional characters .
The Plot: Four months ago the RMS Titanic was lost to the Atlantic. Mr Sherlock Holmes, estranged from Dr Watson, lives in reclusive retirement on the South Downs. The world’s foremost criminal investigator has turned his back on the past, hiding from the world and thinking himself immune to its excesses. Yet he is about to be faced by an old friend, to encounter the most hated man in England and to grapple with the painful implications of the Titanic disaster. More troubling still, he will be forced to try to solve a new and unexpected mystery – one of the most diabolical and fiendish murders with which he has ever been confronted …
“The world interests me hardly at all now that I have ceased to act in it.” - Sherlock Homes (Nicholas Briggs)
With this standalone production Big Finish continues to develop its series of original Sherlock Holmes audio adventures. After a couple of fumbles in the previous series (I was especially disappointed by a 2-hour story by George Mann, click here for my review), I am glad to say that this one-hour adventure is much more successful in my view and hopefully will serve as a template for the recently announced box set of forthcoming adventures that the company is due to release. Once again Nicholas Briggs stars (and co-directs) as Holmes while Richard Earl returns as a splendid Dr Watson.
Last year I reviewed Michael Chabon’ s novel The Final Solution (to read what I had to say, click here), which also looked at Holmes in his final years, and also tied its fictional story to a great historical tragedy, though in that case the link was to the holocaust. The sinking of the Titanic is of a smaller order of magnitude by comparison, but writer Jonathan Barnes does a very fine job of suggestion the pain and anguish that was felt by so many and the sense of betrayal that the ‘unsinkable’ should prove to be anything but. In addition the lead up to the Great War is also directly invoked, linking to Doyle’s last canonical story (chronologically), ‘His Last Bow’.
“Dr Watson, you have spoiled the efficacy of your friend’s methods by the popularity of your pen.” – (Tracey Childs)
It is eight years since Holmes said goodbye to Watson and retired to Sussex to raise bees. In one of many well-judged additions to the Holmesian myth, Barnes’s version of events presents the decision to end the character’s activities as a consulting detective as having been precipitated by an unspecified professional failure. This self-imposed retreat is now interrupted by three visits in quick successions – the local police inspector, investigating a local murder with a strange aquatic link; J. Bruce Ismay, the much vilified survivor of the Titanic as well as one of the men behind its construction; and of course most importantly, the estimable Dr Watson. He however comes back to see his friend desperately in search for the kind of answers that even the great detective, at the height of his powers, would have been unable to provide. Inevitably then, this is not a joyful reunion – far from it in fact. Their first scene together is extremely well handled, Holmes’ reticence and even apparent absent-mindedness subtly underlining the contrasting emotion that is driving Watson as he tries to reconnect with his great companion and plug a gigantic wound in his life.
“Tell me what you make of it all. Bring light where there is at present only darkness” - J. Bruce Ismay (Michael Maloney)
Ismay is also in great distress, believing himself to be hounded by the phantom of a drowned woman who is apparently leaving bodies in its wake, deaths for which he is likely to be blamed. Metaphorically of course Ismay is indeed being pursued by ghosts and, given Doyle’s fascination with occult, this proves to be another intriguing avenue layered into the already rich thematic fabric of this play. Watson is initially furious at the appearance of Ismay, falling in line with the many at the time who believed him to be not only a coward who took a lifeboat play that could have gone to a woman or child but the man who insisted that the Titanic goes faster than it should have to beat the current record for Transatlantic crossings. Eventually though Holmes helps his friend see how tormented Ismay has become by the spectre that seems to be dogging him and eventually manage to sit down for a meal together. Watson even retells part of The Sign of Four, the novel in which he gets engaged to Mary Morstan, a particularly poignant touch for the cognoscenti.
As Ismay (played with his usual sensitivity and quickfire delivery by Michael Maloney) was a real person we assume that he will not be found to be guilty, a-historically, of the two murders that occur in the story – but is he going mad, or is the ghost real? Will Holmes be stirred from his detecting exile and shake off the torpor he appears to have surrendered to? Will Watson find some kind of solace? All these questions are answered with considerably style and panache in this superbly realised drama. Combined with the exceptional sound design and melancholy music score, this does much to really deliver the emotional weight of Barnes’ script, expanding the scope and scale of this otherwise intimate production (in total there are only five actors in the cast, with Toby Longworth succeeding most of the time in voicing with sufficient variety the bulk of the supporting roles). One must conclude though with pointing to the play’s real trump card: Nicholas Briggs in fact proves utterly convincing throughout as an older and bearded version of the famous character, giving easily his best performance to date in the main role. This all bodes very well for the future, even as we look to the past for our inspiration.
The PuzzleDoctor over at In Search of the Classic Mystery has just reviewed this release – he is a much bigger expert on Big Finish productions and you should head over there right now to see how much more sense he has made of this fine production than I have. Click here to read it.
To order this production, either on CD or as a download, visit the Big Finish website at: www.bigfinish.com/ranges/Sherlock-Holmes
Jonathan Barnes’ blog can be found at: http://jonathanbarnes.blogspot.co.uk/