Interview With… Nick Lane

Nick Lane spoke to LLLC’s Emma Clarendon about adapting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of the Four for Blackeyed theatre, touring the UK now. 

Blackeyed Theatre presents Sherlock Holmes - The Sign of Four (courtesy Mark Holliday) (15)
(c)Mark Holliday. 

For those who aren’t familiar with the story can you explain to me a bit more about what The Sign of Four is all about?  I can certainly try! It’s the second full-length novel that Doyle wrote about Holmes and Watson, and it’s very early in their relationship; they’re young men, though their iconic, spiky relationship is fully formed. Into their lives comes Mary Morstan, a client whose father, a former Army Captain, went missing ten years previously. In addition Mary has received a single pearl on the same day each year for the past six years and asks Holmes and Watson to make sense of the latter and offer hope as to the former. This the pair do; Holmes because he lives for brain work; Watson because he’s fallen hopelessly in love with the innocent Mary. Their investigation into these curiously linked matters takes in a secret pact, betrayal, and – of course – murder. I don’t really want to say any more; I’m not a fan of spoilers!

How did you approach adapting the story for the stage?  This probably sounds like a horrible cliché but you have to start with the central relationship. Putting crime fiction on the stage, for me at least, is largely about that chemistry. The rest of it is finding ways to reduce the amount of reported action; to find ways to give the characters proactive and exciting things to do. If you can solve that, You’re on the way.

Was it difficult to come up with a fresh concept for a character who has been numerously used in film, television and stage adaptations?  I suppose, though my relationship with Holmes and Watson started with the Basil Rathbone movies I used to watch with my nana as a kid, and this is pretty far removed from that. I guess you just have to write what you see as the truth. I don’t buy into the more recent idea that Holmes is some kind of emotionless savant; I think he does have passions – they just happen to be all about solving mysteries! As for Watson, his intelligence is often overlooked and he can be Dewan as some kind of oafish sidekick – I see him as being smart, just not as smart as Holmes, in much the same way as the academic contemporaries of, say, Stephen Hawking, were no doubt all fiercely intelligent… they simply perhaps lacked that spark.

Why do you think Sherlock Holmes has proved such a popular character both on screen and on the stage?  I think he’s a lot more than a vessel for Doyle’s stories. Of course that’s part of it; his interplay with Watson while solving the cases is not to be understated and has provided a template for many other characters in procedural crime thrillers, but it’s the fact that he’s enigmatic – I suppose the myriad ways one can play him would bear that out – that’s hugely important. Doyle’s novels cannot claim to be the first example of crime fiction in English literature (that’s The Moonstone, I believe), but he’s the first recurring character, and that’s significant.

What can audiences expect from the production?  I’d say first and foremost a rattling good yarn – there are six cracking performances and it’s an actor-musician show so it’s all original music… it’s a pretty faithful retelling of the novel, with one or two twists to keep even ardent Doyle scholars on their toes!

If you had to convince people to come along and see the show – what would you say? I’d say it’s an exciting, well-crafted and beautifully performed couple of hours in the theatre, in the company of one of literature’s most iconic and enduring characters.

By Emma Clarendon

Blackeyed Theatre’s production of Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of the Four continues to tour the UK until the 7th June 2019. For more information visit:

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