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Damien Atkins and Ric Reid in Sherlock Holmes and The Raven’s Curse.Lauren Garbutt/Shaw Festival

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  • Title: Sherlock Holmes and The Raven’s Curse
  • Written by: R. Hamilton Wright
  • Director: Craig Hall
  • Actors: Damien Atkins, Ric Reid and Donna Soares
  • Company: Shaw Festival
  • Venue: Festival Theatre
  • City: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to October 10

Why would the Shaw Festival choose to relaunch indoor performances, after all this time, with another shlocky Sherlock Holmes play? It’s not a mystery, really.

While much of the arts world is virtuously claiming to be on a quest to “build back better,” the Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., repertory theatre company has been following the beat of its own drummer. It has been tenaciously, perhaps quixotically, marching in place against all odds.

Instead of throwing out the season planned for 2020, its leaders have repeatedly postponed whatever productions they could. Now, some are finally being staged in front of audiences.

Sherlock Holmes and the Raven’s Curse therefore, by happenstance rather than as a statement, has become the first full production to open indoors at the Shaw Festival since 2019 – and the biggest to open indoors anywhere in the province of Ontario during the pandemic.

This is a play by the American actor-turned-playwright R. Hamilton Wright that had its world premiere at Calgary’s Vertigo Theatre just two years ago. It’s based on the characters originally created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, rather than being adapted from one of the old stories.

Atkins and Katherine Gauthier, as Alice Rogers, are helping to relaunch indoor theatre at the Shaw Festival.Lauren Garbutt/Shaw Festival

Director Craig Hall writes in his program note, as if he’s pitching a Hollywood producer in one of those elevators I hear they ride all the time: “I have been describing Raven’s Curse as Sherlock Holmes meets Downton Abbey, as I believe it will appeal to fans of both franchises.”

Franchise fan service, to be honest, is not what I expected my first nerve-wracking return to a half-full theatre space to be about. But soon I found myself relaxed enough under my mask to enjoy this entertainment for what it is. For all the super-fan Easter eggs and genre limitations of the writing, it has moments of stillness and thoughtfulness too.

I was sucked in early on by the amusing interplay between Sherlock (Damien Atkins, who also starred in The Hound of the Baskervilles at the Shaw Festival in 2018) and his brother Mycroft Holmes (Mike Nadajewski at his drollest) in the Diogenes Club. The two trade in deductions deliciously as they await the arrival of a cousin named Beatrice.

When she does show up, Beatrice (Marla McLean, in an oddly opaque performance) reveals that she has travelled to London in the wake of her father’s death to let the famous detective know that he has inherited a manor house on the Isle of Skye.

Atkins and Donna Soares, who plays Fiona MacKenzie.Lauren Garbutt/Shaw Festival

Sherlock is more interested, naturally, in clues he observes that point to Beatrice hiding something from him. She has lost her mother, her husband and her father in fairly short succession, and he wonders how those deaths might connect to the alleged curse of an ancient and valuable raven statue that is said to lie underwater near the manor.

The detective soon sets off for the Isle of Skye to get to the bottom of it all – but, first, of course, he has to get the old gang back together.

Dr. Watson (Ric Reid), in Wright’s story, has recently lost his wife. Sherlock, uncertain of how to show compassion under the circumstances, has been avoiding his old friend and sidekick.

Reid brings as much weight to the role as it can bear, and gives an honestly aching portrait of a man rediscovering his balance through the work he is passionate about after an unbearable loss. That work just happens to be going undercover as Holmes’ “man,” in order to spy on servants from up close in Scotland.

There’s a new addition to the Holmes team too: Wright has invented a cousin of Sherlock’s named Fiona MacKenzie (a playful Donna Soares), a world traveler and a match for him in terms of wits (like Irene Adler is in Conan Doyle’s stories).

Mike Nadajewski, left, Jason Cadieux, centre, and Atkins.Lauren Garbutt/Shaw Festival

Fiona happens to have been adopted from China as a child. Wright seems determined to genuinely explore what it might have been like to grow up looking different than most everyone else in Victorian Scotland. As with Dr. Watson’s grieving process, he gives it the space it needs in the show to resonate.

As for the mystery that Sherlock, Dr. Watson and Fiona eventually solve? Well, there’s a riddle in a will and a trio of servants at the Scottish manor (played with gusto by Jason Cadieux, Chick Reid and Katherine Gauthier) who are suspects in some sort of skullduggery. There’s a fun set with lots of moveable parts, designed by Ken MacKenzie, that seems like it might be hiding secrets just about anywhere. Lighting designer Michelle Ramsay brings Scottish moors to life moodily when the climax requires Dr. Watson’s revolver to be pulled out like Chekhov’s gun.

The underscoring by John Gzowski was a little too cinematic for my taste, and the video projections by Cameron Davis could overwhelm the live in-person actors at times. Let’s just put an end to “opening credits” in theatre productions, no? Some live audiences may be excited to come back for Sherlock, but none are coming back because they miss the straightforward mimicking of screen aesthetics.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage.