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Review: Baskerville at Liverpool Playhouse ****

While other Liverpool theatres stick resolutely to the Christmas spirit at this time of year, the Playhouse has taken a different path over the last decade.

After Season’s Greetings in 2005, followed by a brace of (very funny and successful) Flint Street Nativities, it departed from the festive route to offer an alterative seasonal show, with varying success.

From the highs of the brilliant The 39 Steps (2009) to the misfiring disappointment of Sex and the Three Day Week (2014) and last year’s The Star, the Playhouse certainly hasn’t lacked ambition and variety.

Baskerville, playwright Ken Ludwig’s caper based on Conan Doyle’s greatest Sherlock Holmes mystery (which gets its UK premiere here), harks back merrily to the fast-paced comedy of The 39 Steps, with a touch of The Haunting of Hill House thrown in for good measure – and by far the most entertaining offering in recent years.

In fact, Ludwig was inspired after seeing a production of Patrick Barton’s Hannay adventure, and the style of small cast, large number of characters, and rapid changes of roles and scenes is replicated in his whodunit.

Jay Taylor (Holmes) and Patrick Robinson (Watson) in Baskerville. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

While Jay Taylor and Patrick Robinson’s Holmes and Watson act as the eager straight men, Bessie Carter, Edward Harrison and Ryan Pope orbit them in a whirligig of hugely enjoyable cameos, with just the change of a hat, coat, wig, or the addition of facial hair and an accent.

It must be exhausting. But hats off ( to all three for delineating each character, from the blunt-speaking Inspector Lestrade to the keen telegram boys to a lascivious pair of telephonists, to the collection of misfits and grotesques in the bleak wilds of Devon.

There’s inventive use of a modest number of props and sparse set, as well as multimedia projection, while the rapid costume changes are a source of amusement and delight in their own right – particularly when they’re impossible to achieve, which is then covered by a clever knowing nod to the audience.

Edward Harrison as Sir Charles Baskerville. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Much of each scene is left to the individual viewer’s imagination, assisted by some striking and atmospheric lighting and the liberal use of smoke.

It’s briskly spoken, although there are times the verbal exposition could be a little clearer, and occasionally the production’s energy slows.

But in essence, there’s lots of fun to be had in what’s definitely a Crufts contender rather than a dog’s dinner.

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