Theatre reviews: Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Lipstick, Ketchup & Blood | Noises Off

Lesley Hart’s dystopian riff on Sherlock Holmes is more complex than it first appears, while a new production of Noises Off delivers all the silliness you’d expect, writes Joyce McMillan
Noises Off at Pitlochry Festival Theatre PIC: Fraser BandNoises Off at Pitlochry Festival Theatre PIC: Fraser Band
Noises Off at Pitlochry Festival Theatre PIC: Fraser Band

Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Lipstick, Ketchup and Blood, Pitlochry Festival Theatre ****

Noises Off, Pitlochry Festival Theatre ***

The programme tells us that the lighting design for Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Lipstick, Ketchup and Blood, this year’s first show at Pitlochry’s beautiful outdoor amphitheatre, was created by Jeanine Byrne, but on Saturday afternoon the almighty also took a hand, bathing Lesley Hart’s new 55-minute drama in a series of dramatic shifts between brilliant sunshine and deep raincloud that at times almost uncannily mirrored the shape of the play, with its sharp alternations between the retelling of an old Sherlock Holmes tale, and something much more contemporary and disturbing.

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As the play begins, middle-aged actress Harry and unwilling-looking assistant Ash are launching a performance of what’s essentially a one-woman version of the Holmes story A Study In Scarlet, with Harry playing both Holmes and Watson, and Ash taking all the minor roles, while acting as stage manager. At first, the play seems like a jokey theatrical coda to Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, playing in the main theatre; a small-scale touring version of a tale about backstage drama and discontent leading to onstage confusion.

Within minutes, though, it becomes clear that Harry and Ash are in a far more desperate situation than we can easily imagine, stranded in a barren post-apocalyptic world with no audience, no birds, no animals, no trees, and dwindling supplies. The daily ritual of performance is their last remaining defence against despair, driven by Harry’s old-fashioned showbiz-trouper courage, and by Ash’s affection for her; as a doctor in his past life, he knows that she is desperately ill.

The double track of Lesley Hart’s play makes for a complex hour of theatre, not always gracefully handled in Marc Small’s production. There’s an underlying beauty to the dance of this play, and a touch of poetry, that deserves more space and emphasis. It’s impossible, though, to resist the energy and poignancy of Deirdre Davis’s central performance as Harry, and Tom Richardson offers stalwart support as Ash, in a play that, like Tom McGrath’s Laurel And Hardy at the Lyceum, offers a glimpse of how Scottish theatre deals with the imminence of death, individual or planetary, and of how theatre itself can sometimes seem like the opposite of death, and its only antidote.

In the main theatre, meanwhile, Michael Frayn’s Noises Off takes the stage on the 40th anniversary of its first London production, in a jolly staging by Ben Occhipinti that hits all the right comic bases, without ever quite scaling the quicksilver heights of hilarity this play can sometimes achieve.

Famously set during three performances, some weeks apart, of a touring 1970s farce called Nothing On, Noises Off is one of the most technically demanding plays in the English-language playbook, requiring the cast to deliver three successive and increasingly disrupted versions of the same ineffably silly opening act, while at the same time – with split-second timing – playing out their own backstage farce of fear, lust, loathing, dropping trousers, and emotional collapse.

The show evolves around a fine performance from Deirdre Davis as the leading lady and financial backer Dotty, with ensemble members Alyson Orr, Keith Macpherson, Rachael McAllister and Connor Going – among others – and if there’s a slight feeling, by Act Three, that the hilarity is waning and the joke wearing a little thin, this Noises Off still fully delivers that sense of a happily absorbing two hours in the mad world of old-fashioned theatre, perfectly engineered to delight audiences in search of a blissful and intricate distraction.