Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Joseph Derrington: Sherlock Holmes – The Valley Of Fear

By | Published on Friday 22 March 2024

Coming up shortly at Southwark Playhouse is a welcome run of the excellent Blackeyed Theatre’s ‘Sherlock Holmes: The Valley Of Fear’.

Interest in the Conan Doyle mysteries, and adaptations of them, is as strong as ever, and this is a highly acclaimed adaptation.

I wanted to find out more about the play, and the creative team working on it, so I arranged a chat with actor Joseph Derrington, who plays Watson.  

CM: Can you – without giving too much away, of course – start by telling us a bit about the plot of ‘Sherlock Holmes: The Valley Of Fear’? Where does the narrative take us? 
JD: I’ll try not to give any spoilers! We start in Baker Street, where Holmes receives a mysterious cryptic message from an informant. With his skills, Holmes decrypts the cipher, and it warns of imminent danger at Birlstone Manor.

Holmes and Watson’s expectations are soon realised when a murder is reported at the very same manor – I’m sure that’s not a spoiler… it’s Sherlock Holmes!

Through twists and turns, Holmes unravels the case, which spans 20 years, 4000 miles, two continents and a secret society with an ever-present figure looming.

CM: Can you tell us about the role you play? What attracted you to it and what do you enjoy most about playing it? 
JD: I play Dr Watson in this adaptation, who is – in my opinion – a loyal and honest, emotional and compassionate counterpart to Holmes.

He wears his heart on his sleeve and is – in my view – Holmes’ moral compass. The audience immerse themselves into the mystery of Sherlock, but the writings of Watson offer an account of the situation. 

I played this role in earlier runs of the show. I had seen Blackeyed Theatre’s production of ‘Frankenstein’, and liked the mood and feel of the world the company had created. I also knew about playwright Nick Lane and his incredible writing from other shows, so it was a perfect storm of wanting to work with both the company and the writer/director.

During the first run, I had Luke Barton playing Holmes, and from the first day I met him – when the costume designer hadn’t got my measurements, and I was packed like sausages into a costume three sizes too small for me for a photo shoot – we got on like a Holmes on fire….

And to this day – that was in 2018 – he remains a very good friend. Like I always say, it’s always about the people you meet! That’s the most enjoyable part for me.

CM: What wider themes would you say the play explores? 
JD: I think the play has so much brimming inside of it – we work our way through so many contradictory themes that were present in the original text and in Nick Lane’s take on the story.

For me and Watson, I think the major themes are that of family, chosen family more specifically. Holmes and Watson have a bond that is connected by admiration and compassion – maybe a little one sided externally – but Holmes has his own pragmatic way of showing the care he has for his closest friend and ally.

I think morality comes into the show quite heavily, and potentially the finality of life. And there are so many more themes too, I think, which you could quite easily spend a long evening pondering over and discussing, which is the mark of great literature.

CM: In recent years I’ve seen and heard about quite a few Holmes-based stage shows, some of which were one person shows, some with a modern setting etc. Would you say this production is more ‘traditional’? 
JD: It’s a good mixture, I’d say, of having the feel of a more traditional production, trying to bring you into Victorian Britain – minus the smell of horses and sewage – but with some punctuation of the modern theatre. We move across continents with the use of song, music and set design.

I’d say it isn’t ultra-traditional, but I know that Nick has kept very true to the original book, because Holmes is known across the world and people have a particular idea on what a Sherlock Holmes production should look and feel like. We have tried to tap into that, but with a Blackeyed Theatre dark twist.

Of course there are so many productions of Sherlock Holmes, past, present and future – keep an eye out! – that you can have a one person production of Sherlock, in mime, performed under a bridge in Sweden, with plastic bags for costumes, and you’ll still have people who are interested to go and see it.

Because I think people love a mystery, they love a bit of Sherlock Holmes, and let’s be honest… that production sounds amazing…

CM: Are you a fan of Conan Doyle yourself? Or of the detective/mystery genre in general? 
JD: I do love a murder mystery! I’m terrible at them. I never get it right. Well, actually, I think I’m really good at them but the original playwright or author is obviously wrong. They got the wrong person! 

As for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I’m ashamed to say, I’d never read one of his books before doing the show. Obviously I have now! I’ve done two shows, so I’ve read two. But I’d seen many adaptations, from Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law – people say we look alike! – Jeremy Brett and David Burke, and the BBC’s adaptation with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.

I knew of the stories and how widely they were loved across the world, so it was a little daunting trying to serve justice to these incredible literary characters. 

The great thing about this story is that there are such twists and turns, the ride is from start to finish, and you’re much brighter than I am if you can figure out the ending – unless you’ve read the book, then that’s cheating.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your fellow cast members? 
JD: They are all wonderful! As they stand over me, watching me make these comments…

As I mentioned, I always say that no matter what job you’re in, it doesn’t matter how good the job is, it’s always about the people you are with. You spend weeks, months, millenia with people on the road, staying in the same places, eating together, travelling together, and it’s so nice that we all make each other laugh and add that little cherry on top. 

Gavin, Alice and Blake were all in the last show, from September 2022 to May 2023 – and seeing them again for this production is really nice.

We also have two new members of the band! Dave – our new company stage manager – is brilliant, taking over from the wonderful Jay, who began this tour before they passed the torch on, and Bobby is our new Sherlock.

It’s added another dimension to the show because he’s brought his own take on Holmes, and that changes the relationship between Holmes and Watson, so it’s nice playing in different ways and finding new things.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about yourself? How did you end up as a performer? Was this what you always wanted to do? 
JD: I started performing when I was an extra in a TV programme called ‘William And Mary’, and the whole process of filming and TV fascinated me.

Unfortunately, my mum was also an extra and wore the largest hat you have ever seen, which blocked my face completely from screen, but I knew I was there! I then decided that was what I wanted to do – after crossing off doctor, fireman and chef from the list of possibilities.

I started doing some musicals, some theatre in education, TV bits and bobs, and ended up here, the second show and third tour with Blackeyed Theatre!

CM: What have been the highlights of your working life thus far? 
JD: I’ve been very fortunate to do things in my career as an actor that have brought me so much joy. From touring in China and the Netherlands, to working in Italy and quad biking round the island of Vulcano, and watching the sunset from the crater of its volcano, not a good idea, very picturesque but you then have to climb down in the dark…

I’ve met the most amazing people, I’ve seen most of the UK and been a tourist in some beautiful towns, cities, and countryside. 

Acting is a difficult and tough job though. It’s relentless and ruthless. Endless emails to casting directors and wondering if sending another one three months later for a project is “pestering them”. You must have a thick skin and it can be demoralising sometimes. But the experiences you have, whilst on the road, are the biggest highlight of the job.

CM: What hopes and ambitions do you have for the future? 
JD: The future looks very different to what I had envisaged ten years ago. If you would have asked me then what I would be doing in the future, I’d have said something like “performing around the world, filming in Cuba and Taiwan”. 

However, during times of “resting” – ie not working as an actor – I worked for a medical company as a first responder dealing with very interesting things. I worked nightclubs and music festivals, and film sets – ironically getting more work on Hollywood film sets as an “on set medic” than I did as an actor.

When the pandemic hit, I started working for the NHS. I worked for the London Ambulance Service responding to 999 calls in an ambulance. I then had a complete change of heart about what I wanted to do, and decided that I wanted to uncross ‘doctor’ from the list of jobs and study to become one.

I’m currently in my first year of Graduate Entry Medicine, on the road to becoming a doctor. That’s now where I believe my future lies, hopefully… if I pass the exams… If not, Blackeyed has another production of ‘Sherlock’ happening in 2025 I believe, so I’ll be emailing the producer!

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?  
JD: Next is three and half more years of hard work, exams and clinical practice to become a doctor – a real one!

But… who’s to say that after I qualify and spend a few years practising, that I don’t dip my toe back into the waters of theatre… so watch this space. 

Although in the immediate future, I should say a holiday. I want me and my partner to jump on a plane and go somewhere… anywhere! Suggestions are always welcome, although she likes a beach, sun and sand… so nothing chilly. 

‘Sherlock Holmes: The Valley Of Fear’ is on at Southwark Playhouse from 27 Mar-13 Apr. Head to the venue website here for more information and to book tickets. 

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Photo: Alex Harvey-Brown