Posted inTheatre

The Dancing Men Review: An Engaging and Innovative Adaptation of a Sherlock Holmes Thriller

Proffered in the event description as “part show, part challenge”, Dorothy McDowell’s adaptation of a series of Arthur Conan Doyle short stories as an interactive murder mystery event proves to be a refreshing and ingenious take on virtual drama.

Immediately, the viewer is gripped by the CCTV footage of Lesley Armstrong (played by Grace DeSouza) discovering blood and the voiceover of Inspector Jackson (played by Georgie Dettmer) setting up the exposition of the play – the murder of an Oxford student named Camilla Milverton. By concisely establishing the details of the events prior to the play in under a minute, the script allows the audience to focus their full attention on the subsequent developments of the case and does not detract from the unfolding mystery.

Elements of this production that were naturally affected by the challenges of filming during the pandemic were professionally handled: the ability of the actors to maintain their eyelines with offscreen characters, in spite of the fact that in reality, they were by themselves, deserves commendation. I amused myself by trying to piece together the geography of the world in my mind while watching the show; Camilla’s bedroom appears to flit between Keble, Trinity, and Worcester and the variation of modernity in the architecture and furnishings, along with Inspector Demuth’s (played by Sophie Holland) wearing of a face mask in a scene were possibly the only indications that this was a show that had to make the best of, well, to put it mildly, an imperfect situation. Although again, this is evidently a natural consequence of socially distanced theatre and did not distract at all from the narrative itself.

In terms of the editing, the level of detail in the character files that appeared on screen was a tad distracting – I couldn’t help but feel that I should be concerned with looking for clues in the PIN numbers and daily alarms of the characters and, as a result, paid less attention to the dialogue. On the whole, however, video editor Harvey Dovell deserves high praise for his role in packaging the entire production together (the seamlessness with which the bodycam footage was pieced together with the CCTV footage during the tailing of Armstrong being a particular highlight).

The acting itself is of a wonderfully high caliber. Alfie Dry plays blues athlete Godfrey Staunton with a wonderful level of indignance, as highly strung as anyone who gets 5 hours of sleep per night and is accused of murder would probably be too. Sophie Holland as Inspector Demuth, the exasperated partner to Inspector Jackson who is required to do the more menial tasks in the investigation, complements Jackson’s character nicely. Georgie Dettmer as Inspector Jackson is a particular highlight, portraying the inquisitive lead detective with a delightful naturalism that conveys equal parts curiosity and frustration, tying the production together with her voiceovers and helping to control the narrative as she draws closer to solving the mystery. Other stand out performances include Louis Cunningham, who is really excellent at performing Hector McFarlane, a mathematician with a nervous predisposition and penchant for solving codes, which is very helpful at establishing the stakes from early on. Although as anyone who knows of Louis’ well-established reputation in Oxford drama for the previous four years, it comes as a bit of a stretch to see him play an 18-year-old fresher! By contrast, first-year Grace DeSouza gives a most convincing performance as harangued cardiology tutor Lesley Armstrong, bored of being questioned and scathingly defensive. Olivia Marshall oozes malice as Mary McFarlane, leaving numerous dour and chilling voicemails for her neighbour Camilla. And finally (warning: spoiler alert!), Abi Watkinson plays Camilla Milverton with a subtle innocence that belies the beguiling charm that led to her blackmail of the other characters, and it is nice to see her confronted by DIs Jackson and Demuth in the final scene.

The thirty-minute running time was perfect for a show released outside of term time and, given the format, a shorter length is no doubt far more enticing to prospective viewers. In spite of this, however, I did feel that there could have perhaps been a slightly greater build-up of tension before the big reveal at the end in order to really grip the audience’s attention and heighten the feeling of suspense that was being evoked. The interactive puzzle that was sent round to audience members was a lovely touch that really helped make this production unique and immersive, particularly when that immersion may have otherwise been lost by the lack of a live audience gathering in a theatre. Overall, McDowell and Dowley should be extremely proud of creating an online murder mystery that is punchy, suspenseful, and engaging.