The Speckled Band: An Adventure of Sherlock Holmes
4617 Montrose Blvd.
One day, when J.J. Johnston was in third grade, a friend showed up at his house with a book he had purloined from his parents' bookcase: Arthur Conan Doyle's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. For Johnston, it was the beginning of a childhood obsession with the fictional English consulting detective. "While the rest of my friends were playing GI Joe and He Man, I would have two baseball caps on my head [in imitation of Holmes's iconic deerstalker cap] and would steal my dad's pipe to pretend."
Beginning this week, Johnston, the founder and executive artistic director of Houston's Classical Theatre Company, will have the opportunity to play Holmes again, this time in front of a paying audience. Although Houston theatergoers are accustomed to seeing Holmes on stage—actor Todd Waite has played the detective three times in the past 10 years at the Alley—they've never seen the play that Classical Theatre is mounting, The Speckled Band: An Adventure of Sherlock Holmes, which is making its Houston premiere.
The play is based on Conan Doyle's short story of the same name, about a bizarre murder at a remote English country house, and is the only story that the author himself adapted into a play. (All the other Holmes plays, of which there are many, were either adapted by a different writer or use Conan Doyle's characters to tell an original story, as in the Alley's 2013 Sherlock Holmes and the Adventures of the Suicide Club.)
"I've read nearly every play that has ever been written based on Sherlock Holmes, and I was never entirely happy with them," Johnston says. "So when I heard that Conan Doyle himself had done this adaptation, I knew I had to do it. We trimmed it a bit and added back in some dialogue from the short story that Doyle had taken out, but all of the words are Doyle's." The play was originally scheduled to premiere last fall, but had to be postponed when the Classical Theatre secured a lease on a new space in Montrose's Chelsea Market (the former home of Main Street Theater's Theater for Youth).
Over the years, hundreds of actors have portrayed the English detective, from Basil Rathbone to Robert Downey Jr. to Benedict Cumberbatch. Johnston's favorite is Jeremy Brett, who played Holmes in an English TV series that ran from 1984 to 1994. He admitted he's nervous about playing his childhood hero. "It's been a bit daunting, of course—you don't want to recreate anyone else's previous attempt at the character," he said. "So we're trying to keep it fresh, make it feel a little different."
In other words, the game's afoot!