Imagine a show where three actors take a literary classic and turn it into slapstick humor and puns SO BAD that you find yourself chuckling involuntarily. The three actors in question Dan Clarkson, Jeff Turner and Natalie Cheetz (well, technically four if you include a talking portrait) perform all 60 Sherlock Holmes stories in just 80 knee-slapping minutes.
The show has everything but the kitchen sink. There’s singing, dancing, puppets, water-sprayers and many, many costume changes with hats and wigs. The writers, Dan and his brother Tom Clarkson, include so many geek and pop culture references that it’s impossible to keep track of them all. With fandoms including Game of Thrones, Batman, Frozen, Dirty Dancing, Princess Bride and even a Gallifreyan inspired set, there’s something for everyone.
“I’m a closet geek but not really because it’s kind of obvious” says Dan Clarkson, who was gracious enough to talk with me post-show. “After Harry Potter, my other two loves are Sherlock and a certain Time Lord.”
A Study in Sherlock
To cover all the stories in such a short amount of time, the actors had to balance the dialogue and the physical requirements of changing characters. Entire books and short stories were condensed into one sentence of dialogue or crafted into songs, which were either original, made-up tunes or easily recognizable 1980s-inspired mash-ups.
At one point in the show Clarkson runs in and out of a door as a different sub-character requesting help. As quickly as he runs in, Sherlock and Watson, (played by Turner and Cheetz respectively) solve the mystery and Clarkson runs back with a different wig—often improperly attached to his head—to repeat the scene again and again.
Through the snappy writing and scenes like that, the audience uses their powers of deduction to see how systematic and—dare I say—unoriginal Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote Sherlock’s adventures.
For the few cases that are granted more stage time, the plot isn’t the focus. Beyond the corny jokes, the actors exploit how painfully obvious Doyle distributed clues to the mysteries. For example, in The Adventure of the Speckled Band, of course a stepfather with a violent rage who threatens Sherlock is going to be the culprit of killing his stepdaughter and planning to kill her sister. Honestly, how dense did Doyle think his audience was?
The trio also highlights Doyle’s character inconsistencies that that popular culture has skewed to its delight. For example, remember Mary, Dr. Watson’s adorable wife, who plays a prominent role in the BBC TV show Sherlock and the Warner Bros. 2009 blockbuster film Sherlock Holmes? Well, Potted Sherlock reveals that Mary is actually a minor character who is killed off in the literature for a mysterious reason. Watson remarries several more times, and his wives drop out and periodically return with no rhyme or reason.
Even Professor Moriarty, Sherlock’s famous arch-nemesis, is reduced to a tiny puppet whose three stories are summarized within 30 seconds. Nevertheless, he’s still Clarkson’s favorite:
“I love the character Moiarty in any way through the books and TV. But when we read the books fresh, we realized how few he’s in. So I play him as this poor guy who’s just trying to be a villain. He gets more and more frustrated. And so if he’s frustrated, why don’t we give him a tiny little body and do everything we can to try and emasculate him.”
At another point in the performance, the three actors switched parts every few minutes, using hats to signify who was playing which character. And that’s where things really got confusing, especially for the trio. Clarkson mistakenly called Turner the understudy’s name, but that’s all part of the fun, according to Clarkson.
“We try and allow for stuff to go wrong and leave room to improvise. That part with the hats did once accidently [go wrong]. And that’s funny. So we now try to let it go wrong every night.”
The Adventure of Dan and Jeff
The idea for a Potted Sherlock had been in Clarkson’s head for a long time.
“When I was a kid, I’d read the Sherlock books in school. I’ve always been writing sketches with Sherlock Holmes.”
However, the writing for this particular performance didn’t begin until recent years. Dan and Tom went to Dartmoor, where the Hound of the Baskervilles was set. Then they sat down in a cottage, drank some whisky and started laughing and writing.
Potted Sherlock isn’t Dan’s first attempt at a face-paced comedy retelling the story of beloved characters. Dan and Jeff found each other, success and Olivier-award nominations for Potted Potter, a parody performance that recaps the seven Harry Potter books in 70 minutes.
When the sixth Harry Potter installment arrived, a bookstore on Oxford Street asked Dan to perform a 15-minute, two-man show just before the midnight release. But at the time, Dan did a one-man comedy circuit; he had to find the jelly to his peanut butter. Clarkson had met Turner a few times over the years, but when he went to one of his performances, Clarkson had a realization.
“If I squint and look the other way, Jeff looks a little bit like Daniel Radcliffe on a really bad day. So Jeff played Harry Potter, and I played the rest of the characters.”
Their initial audience absolutely loved the short show, so Dan and Jeff decided to make it a full-blown comedy performance. And the rest, they say, is history.
An interesting aspect of Potted Potter is that the show has an unusual “handshake” copyright agreement with J.K. Rowling, according to Nathan Anderson who helped book the show at a venue in Missouri that hosted the duo a few years ago.
“She looks the other way, and they do their thing,” says Nathan. “She gets a percentage of sales, and the show can’t use specific lines from the books or sell more than 1,000 seats per performance. That’s the arrangement.”
Technically, Jeff and Dan can sell up to 999 seats—they always save one for Rowling in case she wants to attend the show. Although she’s never seen Potted Potter, that doesn’t mean she hasn’t tried.
“In Edinburgh, a box office girl came up to us in tears telling us that a women who looked like J.K. Rowling had come up and tried to get a ticket, but they were sold out and sent her away.” Dan says. “And I thought ‘Maybe it was her, or maybe it was just a blonde women,’ until last year we met [Rowling] at a Lumos convention and she said that she had tried to see our show.”
Luckily, for Potted Sherlock Clarkson and Turner don’t have to worry about copyrights because Doyle’s stories are in the public domain. However, a different challenge arose for the duo. Clarkson specifically wrote the female role for his friend Lizzie Wort, but she stayed in the UK when Potted Sherlock began traveling internationally. So Clarkson and Turner decided that a different woman would play the part in each country they visited. In the US performances, Clarkson invited his friend Natalie Cheetz who’s an actress in Los Angeles to audition and eventually rewrote the script to fit the character she wanted to play.
In a way, Potted Sherlock is a different act every night. Some jokes make it in, and others don’t. Although audiences may come for their love of Doyle’s cherished characters, they leave gasping for air and sore abs from all their laughing.
Unfortunately, if you’d like to see Potted Sherlock, there aren’t any upcoming shows. Instead, Clarkson and Turner are going to return to Potted Potter, just finishing several performances in Anchorage, Alaska, and hope to bring their fast-paced, fandom based humor to the world.