Sherlock Holmes was so popular in his day that enraged readers pressured Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to revive the fictional detective after the author tried to kill him. Doyle went on to write a total of 56 Holmes stories and four novels over a 40-year period ending in 1927. Nearly a century later, his creation continues to inspire countless adaptations and spin-offs. In the current production of Lifeline Theater, the brilliant detective remains in the canonical setting of Victorian London, with a few key changes: she goes by Miss Sherlock Holmes, and her faithful partner in solving crimes is Dr. Dorothy Watson.
“Miss Holmes Returns,” written by Christopher M. Walsh and directed by Elise Kauzlaric, follows Lifeline’s 2016 production of “Miss Holmes.” I haven’t seen the first iteration, but the sequel captures the necessary backstory: Miss Holmes (Katie McLean Hainsworth) and Dr. Watson (Mandy Walsh) has spent four years untangling the strands of a criminal web surrounding a shadowy figure known as the Professor. Just as they approach one of the professor’s associates, the man is killed in an apparent act of self-defense by Priya Singh (Vinithra Raj), a young nurse of Indian descent. Holmes and Watson take on the case.
This whodunit features an entertaining cast, unexpected plot twists, and clever nods to the original stories. It also addresses themes of sexism, colonialism and racism in a way that feels authentic to the Victorian setting, but still resonates today. However, the pace of the first act felt slow, while the second act had too much plot. Plus, some of the moments meant to pack an emotional punch didn’t come out for me.
Hainsworth is quite good as Miss Holmes – suitably cerebral and stiff, with subdued physical tics indicative of a constantly active mind. She lacks some of the more eccentric detective qualities found in the stories, and Hainsworth’s performance isn’t as socially awkward as some of the actors’ interpretations. However, her character tends to miss certain social cues, especially from the opposite sex, with funny results. When it comes to Dr. Watson, the mutual affection and trust of the two friends are evident.
Alan Donahue’s set design centers on a bridge, used for various scenes on or near the River Thames, and mood lighting by Diane D. Fairchild evokes the dingy docks and ubiquitous fog of 19th-century London. While the work of Holmes and Watson often puts them in such dubious surroundings, they live a comfortable middle-class life at home on Baker Street, as evidenced by their sensible yet fashionable dresses designed by Emily McConnell.
Walsh’s script contains some history of early British feminism, most notably the efforts of real-life social reformer Josephine Butler (Julie Partyka) and the Ladies National Association for the Real of the Contagious Diseases Acts. The Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s, purportedly designed to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, allowed women suspected of prostitution to be subjected to extensive medical examinations and detained for up to a year. Colonial history is also covered by the fictional character of Priya Singh, whose parents emigrated to England after the 1857 rebellion against the ruling British East India Company of India.
These threads are intertwined with storylines featuring canonical characters, including Inspector Lestrade (Linsey Falls) and Mycroft Holmes (Christopher Hainsworth). Without ruining the plot points, I’d argue that the emotional stakes aren’t set enough for certain tragic events to have full impact later in the piece. In addition, the climactic scenes with the unveiled villain don’t feel menacing enough. The best detective stories combine the thrill of the chase – be it intellectual or literal – with an empathetic connection to the characters. Both elements are somewhat lacking here.
On a lighter note, the piece features several Easter eggs for fans of the original stories or previous adaptations. The Baker Street Irregulars—the street kids the detective uses as his eyes and ears around town—are reimagined as a network of older women known as the Knitting Circle. As in Doyle’s stories, Dr. Watson’s cases of Miss Holmes in serial form; in this version she publishes them under a pseudonym in the fictional Waterloo Magazine. Also, Miss Holmes gives a detailed explanation of what she means by the term “elemental” – the adjective Holmes uses only once in Doyle’s works, but is inextricably linked to the character through later adaptations.
“Miss Holmes Returns” offers an entertaining look at Doyle’s familiar characters, and the historical details about women and immigrants in 19th-century England are welcome additions. The script may be overly ambitious, but fans of Sherlock Holmes or murder mysteries in general can still enjoy this one.
Review: “Miss Holmes Returns” (2.5 stars)
When: until October 16
Where: Lifeline Theater, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $45 at lifelinetheatre.com or 773-761-4477
Emily McClanathan is a freelance critic.