S. Brent Morris is a mathematician, scholar of Freemasonry, and Sherlock Holmes aficionado who lectures on “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” and cryptology at the heart of the famous Sherlock Holmes story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He notes that the “Dancing Men Cipher” is a simple substitution cipher. In his talks to local Sherlock Holmes groups, Dr. Morris delves into obscure codes and writings such as Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Few Words on Secret Writing.”
…We Happy Few can claim great success in bringing the Dancing Men code to the mind’s eye of the listener.
Yet Dr. Morris not merely enjoys analyzing the story — he enjoys the story, one of the most popular in the Sherlock Holmes oeuvre. Indeed, Conan Doyle named it third of his twelve favorite Holmes stories. “It is clear from the beginning of the story that something nefarious — indeed dangerous — is under foot,” Dr. Morris notes. “Sherlock Holmes and the reader are presented with strange drawings of stick figures, the ‘dancing men’ of the title. Can the import of the drawings be deduced in time to help the client? What danger and mystery lurk behind the dancing men? The reader is given the sense of matching wits in real time with Sherlock Holmes, a heady experience!”
Now audio drama enthusiasts and those interested in the Washington theatre scene can partake of this “heady experience” by listening to “Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of Dancing Men,” a production adapted deftly by Kerry McGee and produced with spirit by We Happy Few. This unique theatre troupe is based in Washington’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. During the pandemic, the company has dedicated itself to producing audio mysteries.
Taking on the Dancing Men code as its first Sherlock Holmes production is no mean task, for the cipher is very visual. Nonetheless, We Happy Few can claim great success in bringing the this renowned cipher to the mind’s eye of the listener. One such method by which the audio adaptation does so is through the crisp and detailed delivery of lines describing the code. The other way — and the more unusual one — is through a ploy We Happy Few has used to great effect in previous productions: the listener receives, by mail, some of the clues to the mystery, including writings with the Dancing Men code. This is not to downplay other prizes which help make the sound dramatization a tactile experience in addition to a heady one. There is a faux newspaper in the style of the Victorian Age, a magnifying glass (the character of Holmes often pictured with a magnifying glass), and “Dancing Sherlock” tea to be brewed at home (presumably, Mr. Holmes, like his English co-nationals, was an inveterate tea drinker).
When attempting the intimacy of a radio-style dramatic presentation, it is crucial that the chemistry between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson be warm and engaging. Jon Reynolds, as the great detective, and Dylan J. Fleming, as his companion and chronicler, achieve this bond admirably. Louis E. Davis is in excellent form as Hilton Cubitt, the client who brings the matter of the Dancing Men scrawl to Sherlock Holmes at 221B Baker Street. Cubitt begins to see the coded script scrawled around his estate by an individual he thinks is menacing his wife Elsie (a character of mystery who, in Conan Doyle’s words, “would never allude to [her] past” and is yet enacted with verve by Jenna Murphy). For those who already know this tale well and might think of passing it by, we recommend they not do so, due to the excellence of the production as well as an unusual twist We Happy Few adds in the latter half of the tale. While it would be criminal to reveal it here, we will mention that this alteration to the Holmesian adventure lends greater plausibility to Mrs. Cubitt’s desire to conceal her past in convention-laden Victorian society.
Those daring to venture with Holmes and Watson into the “danger and mystery [which] lurk behind the dancing men” may order the MP3 recording and accompanying visual details by contacting We Happy Few here. The game is afoot!