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Jay Baruchel’s stage debut as Sherlock Holmes makes for a witty, crowd-pleasing comedy

Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective is not enduringly popular because he’s smart, but because he’s an oddball. His mystery plots were never as fascinating as his eccentric characters, so vivid and peculiar they became stereotypes. Fittingly, Jay Baruchel’s Sherlock Holmes is part mad scientist, part Oscar Wilde character. Witty and quirky.

The plot stays in Victorian London, but Steampunk costumes and a minimalist set by James Lavoie—projections on metal scrims—give the production a modern edge. So does the tongue-in-cheek script by the late Greg Kramer. Sherlock Holmes is filled with timeless jabs, mainly political (Conservative governments, corrupt politicians), little hints that the audience readily connects to current events. Director Andrew Shaver’s references to 1930s slapstick and melodrama allow him to convey character through caricature. But the very carefully paced timing and execution of the staging carry the show. Like Holmes says, “genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains.”

Baruchel’s big stage debut
This is Baruchel’s professional stage debut. A film/TV actor, he stumbles over lines, doesn’t project and adopts a fake-sounding accent. No matter: he charms everyone with his crowd-pleasing brand of comedy. Karl Graboshas anchors the show as Watson. Gemma James-Smith is theatric as the lady in distress who turns out to be more, and then more again. Kyle Gatehouse is slick as a villain in red (the colour of the poppy he pushes), and Graham Cuthbertson is his henchman. Trent Pardy, Patrick Costello, Chip Chuipka, Deena Aziz and Mary Harvey round out a great cast. Many of them are associated with SideMart Theatrical Grocery. They really know and play off each other’s talents.

The downside to comedy
Kramer died of a heart attack on the eve of the first rehearsal, but there is no dark side to this Sherlock. This is a celebration-through-parody of theatre itself. Every trick in the book, all the theatrical conventions are here, and played for laughs. Puns abound. Shaver has highlighted the irony and cleverness of Kramer’s script. There’s a downside to comedy, of course. This is not a reading of Holmes that presents him as a troubled man. There is no psychological complexity to these characters. This is why scenes such as one where Holmes’ infamous drug habits fuel a depression do not ring true.

Kramer was supposed to play Scotland Yard detective Lestrade. But it’s more obvious that he felt an affinity with Watson, the chronicler and observer on the sidelines, and especially with Holmes. A good writer is not only an observer, but a riddle solver who makes apparent what everyone else failed to understand. 

Sherlock Holmes
Until May 28 at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts
5170, chemin de la Côte-Ste-Catherine | segalcentre.org