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Joseph Derrington - Sherlock Holmes: The Valley of Fear Interview

Following UK-wide success in 2023, Blackeyed Theatre is reviving its acclaimed Sherlock Holmes: The Valley of Fear this Spring, including a three-week London premiere at Southwark Playhouse Borough. Adapted by Nick Lane from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fourth and final Sherlock Holmes novel, The Valley of Fear is crammed full of adventure, mystery and one or two rather brilliant deductions. This thrilling show makes a much-anticipated return in a production combining stylish theatricality, original music and gripping storytelling. 

When Sherlock Holmes receives a mysterious coded message, warning of imminent danger, he and the faithful Dr Watson are drawn into a tale of intrigue and murder stretching from 221B Baker Street to an ancient, moated manor house to the bleak Pennsylvanian Vermissa Valley. Faced with a trail of bewildering clues, Holmes begins to unearth a darker, wider web of corruption, a secret society and the sinister work of one Professor Moriarty.

Ahead of the production returning, we caught up with actor Joseph Derrington who plays Dr John Watson in the production. 

What first attracted you to this production? 
The first Blackeyed show I saw was Frankenstein back in 2017 and thought it was brilliant. My friend was in the show, and he mentioned that there were auditions for Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four. I loved touring theatre and seeing different parts of the country so thought, I’ll give it a shot. The company sounded really nice to work for, the producer, Adrian, sounded very compassionate and receptive to artists and the writer, Nick, who adapted it is very highly regarded. I really didn’t think I would land the role but I got a call that set me up for 2 (now 3) tours and I’ve really enjoyed working with the company, the casts of the shows and the crew we tour with.

When you’re cast do you go back to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original text, or do you let the script do the work for you? 
I do both, so I believe as an actor you have to be a vehicle for the character you’re playing. Humans are incredibly complex beings, and we are formed by the environment we are surrounded by. So I use the script to add the thought and feelings of the character at that moment and their objectives and aims for the scene and the play. I use the original text to get an understanding of how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle perceived the world he was in and what may have shaped his thoughts and feeling behind the characters. Then I’ll look at the history of the time when it was written to get an idea of the social context that the author may have been living in. Finally, I’ll look at when the play was set to get an understand of the world the characters would have been living in to shape the character mindset. All of this plus a dash of myself (usually just the moustache) fill this character to, hopefully, give justice to the play.

You return to the piece having played it before on tour. How rewarding is that for you as an actor to get to revisit a role that has been so well received? 
It’s always a mixture of exciting and daunting. I’m always excited to go out on the road and you never know how an audience will react to a portrayal of a character, especially one so famous in a piece of writing that is known internationally. There’s the slight ease of pressure when you’ve had such lovely feedback from the audiences and in reviews to your portrayal, which is very generous. It’s daunting to think that it will have been almost a year since playing the role so I hope I can still live up to the previous shows! But I’m very lucky because I can be carried by the rest of the amazing cast. Alice, Gavin and Blake who were in the first tour of The Valley of Fear are returning so the audiences are safe in their hands. I also have faith in the director, the producer and our stage manager that they will tell me if I’m doing a terrible job! (I don’t need the costume designer to inform me of the weight I may or may not have put on… I’ll know when the waistcoat doesn’t fit anymore…)

This isn’t your first time playing Dr John Watson but how did you approach putting your own stamp on the character? 
Yes, this isn’t my first rodeo! I originally played Watson in Blackeyed 2018/19 adaptation of Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four. Myself and the director (Nick Lane) wanted to try and show an intellectual side to Watson that may not have been readily apparent in previous works. We all see Holmes as this incredibly brilliant and highly cerebral being, yet we can forget that John is a Doctor, he is a medical man, so he isn’t stupid. I see Watson as an instrument for focusing and channelling Sherlocks thoughts into the problem at hand. I think the success of the characters in particular was aided by the relationship that myself and Luke Barton, who played Sherlock for both productions, had together. We had great fun and remain friends now. Unfortunately, he was not available for this part of the tour, but we have an amazing actor taking up the reins, Bobby Bradley, who was in Blackeyed’s latest version of Frankenstein. So I’m looking forward to finding the nuances and connections that our two characters can create with his own stamp on Holmes.

Why do you think Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and characters remain ever popular? 
I think even being set in Victorian Britain it’s still a story of mystery and intrigue, incredible plot lines and deductive artistry. I think it appeals to the human brain. We seek meaning and answers, so being presented with a mystery switches on this problem-solving part of the brain that gets us fired up to work the answer out. Can we be as smart as Sherlock Holmes? I think as well that Arthur Conan Doyle has written a relationship between two men that is so personable that we can all relate to it. We fight and we compete, we laugh, we admire each other, we help and we support. I think if you haven’t had that relationship with another person then you need to open up your vulnerability to the world. You would be hard pushed to find someone that hasn’t had that kind of a relationship. So this work is timeless as its about connection and human relationships.

Who has been your ultimate Holmes and Watson combo?
There’s been so many to choose from. I was a huge fan of the Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law combo (mostly because people think we look alike…) I liked the chemistry between the duo and the brotherly affection. But I also really liked “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” with Jeremy Brett and David Burke. Jeremy Brett’s cadence in speaking was just so unique to me.

What keeps you inspired? 
So many things, but the number one person that inspires me is my partner, who keeps me inspired (and sane), she is always pushing me to better myself and try something I’ve never done before. We both do really. We are motivated by exploring and growing as people and I’m so thankful she forces me out of my comfort zone (even if I don’t yet see the positives myself).

What do you hope an audience member takes away from seeing this production? 
I hope that for two and half hours, an audience member can get away from the world, away from 2024 and step into Victorian Britain. If they know the story, I hope they find enjoyment in the world we are creating, the story is true to their hopes from the original work and some much-needed catharsis from the here and now. For people that don’t know the show, I want them to play along with the mystery. Get wrapped up in the story, guessing in the interval who the killer is (that’s not a spoiler, it's Sherlock Holmes so there’s almost always a murder or attempted murder). I would love them to get a sense of excitement as the story progresses and even an “I didn’t see that coming!” to any reveals and resolutions as the story concludes. Ultimately, I want everyone to have a lovely evening of theatre and look up when the next Blackeyed show is heading their way!

Sherlock Holmes: The Valley of Fear tours visiting Artsdepot (9th and 10th March), Dundee Rep (13th - 16th March), Derby Theatre (19th - 23rd March), Southwark Playhouse Borough (27th March - 13th April) and Theatre Royal Bath (16th - 20th April). Tickets and more information can be found

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