Giles Woodforde welcomes the return of live theatre - albeit outdoors...

This bit drags in the book,” announces one of the actors cheerfully as she flips over a few pages in a venerable edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles – thus neatly spiking the guns of any Sherlock Holmes fan who might object to the Watermill at Newbury shortening the familiar text down to an hour and a half.

Actually, anyone who complains should be run off the premises by the snarling jaws of the Hound himself. For this production can only be described as a total miracle.

On March 16, minutes before the curtain was due to rise on the world premiere of brand new musical The Wicker Husband at the Watermill, Newbury, mobiles pinged with the news that all West End theatres had closed with immediate effect.

The Watermill show went on, in a very eerie atmosphere. And that was that. Since then, all theatres have been shut, and income from ticket sales has vanished. Every local theatre has been appealing for donations. A Government bail out fund has finally been announced, but, Watermill boss Paul Hart told me: “We still have no idea whether we will get any of the money, or when.”

Then, on July 9, the Government announced that carefully controlled, socially distanced outdoor events could proceed. At the Watermill, the tape measures came out of the drawer: could enough spaced-out tables be accommodated in the theatre’s glorious gardens to make an outdoor show viable, and could the in-house catering team cope with meal service to the tables? The answer was yes: the plan to stage Hound, followed by concert performances of the musical Camelot was a goer.

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But the deadline was super-tight: opening night was less than three weeks away. Rehearsals started online, with the cast of three actors (Victoria Blunt, Rosalind Lailey, and James Mack) collaborating with director Abigail Pickard Price to produce a script as they went along. Finally it was into the Watermill rehearsal room, with lots of anti-bac spray (no doubt) and everyone “dancing round each other in one metre squares” as Pickard Price puts it in the programme. No time or money for any set or new costumes – everything had to come from the Watermill’s store.

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So all a bit of a ragbag then? Absolutely not – you’d never know that the production hasn’t benefitted from a normal rehearsal period, working from an established script. Even the period costumes look absolutely fresh – a great credit to the Watermill’s anti-moth procedures.

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“Ooooh!” go Holmes and Watson in chorus as they sight Dartmoor for the first time. The script is big on “ooooh’s” and “ahhh’s”, very much in the manner of the speech bubbles in children’s comics. Wisely, lashings of comedy have been applied to Conan Doyle’s spooky tale, neatly getting over the fact that the Watermill’s gardens in no way carry the menace of Dartmoor on a bleak winter’s night. Comedy is also used to point up the necessary social distancing on stage, with Holmes and Watson pointedly leaning backwards when addressing each other, and keeping well away from every Dartmoor local they encounter: “Ah,” shouts Watson confidently as the late Sir Charles Baskerville’s neighbour Stapleton emerges from the trees carrying a giant butterfly net, “I was told you are a naturist”. Luckily the Hound itself remains socially distanced behind a hedge.

With a lot of quick-as-a-flash hat, cloak, and accent changes, the three actors play a whole gallery of characters, with Rosalind Lailey as a crisp, modern manager-type Holmes, and Victoria Blunt as a suitably kowtowing Watson. James Mack is excellent as a whole range of different Baskervilles.

This is just the sort of light-hearted production that’s required in current circumstances, and reflects great credit on all concerned. It can be complemented by an optional tea (matinees) or dinner (evenings). We had the two-course set menu dinner - moussaka plus Eton mess pudding (me), poached salmon salad and another Eton mess (my wife). Delicious and immaculately served – and, we thought, very good value at £16 a head plus drinks.