I am in Hamburg for a very short weekend to see family and friends and am generously treated to a trip to the Imperial Theater. I am excited as I have planned to come here for a long time after several recommendations but never got around to do so.
The Imperial Theater’s focus is on crime stories with what seems an anglophile affinity to the 1950s and 1960s, especially this era’s pearls of German pulp fiction. Groschenromane they are called in German which means literally “10 penny novels” – which again is not far from penny dreadfuls. Original issues of these are exhibited in the lobby and the walls are hanged with film posters of the black and white movies. Edgar Wallace is a household name of these audio plays and films in which not only Klaus Kinski started his career. I am a bit too young to remember the original broadcast but I do remember plenty of parodies. The yellow-red-orange tiles in the building add to the atmosphere. The actual theatre, (“Hamburg’s bloodiest stage” I read somewhere) is plush and charming with stitched golden numbers on the seats.
Tonight, we are seeing Sherlock Holmes und der Fluch des Pharao – The Curse of the Pharaoh that is in English – luckily, I do not know this case yet or at least do not remember it. I must admit I have not read a single book by Arthur Conan Doyle but I have binged-listened to most episodes of the German Sherlock Holmes audio play series by the Maritim-Verlag label. Afterwards I did visit The Sherlock Holmes Museum in London’s Baker Street 221b (where else?) and got most of the references to the cases.
It is also handy that I suffer from a crime plot amnesia and can watch a whodunnit twice. The last crime fiction I have seen on stage must have been Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap – performance 23955 to be precise – in London and here in Hamburg in The English Theatre of Hamburg a thriller named Bad Blood by Richard Stockwell (the English theatre’s plays in Hamburg are indeed completely spoken in English and they claim to have been the first theater of this kind in Germany since they opened in 1976). Having also visited the Sherlock Holmes exhibition a couple of years back in the Museum of London, admired Robert Downey Jr. in the action-packed Guy Ritchie films (loved both) and watched the first season of the TV series with Mr. Cumberbatch and Mr. Freeman I feel prepared for tonight. Oh, and I was dragged to Baker Street again last summer but this time to Madame Tussauds’ – and I found The Sherlock Holmes Experience there the actual highlight: You are charged 5 pounds extra for this and then assist Sherlock and Watson in an interactive play, leading you to different rooms (trip to the morgue anyone?) and challenging your investigation skills. The outcome of the story was weak, but I enjoyed each of the 20 minutes anyway due to the fantastic actors from Les Enfants Terribles.
Summarizing my personal history around Mr. Sherlock Holmes: Again, I feel prepared.
The tickets want to be picked up at the theatre two hours before the show starts which is not unusual in Hamburg. We have therefore time for a stroll on Hamburg’s notoriously famous Reeperbahn with its theatres, strip joints, travesty shows, brothels, bars, clubs, pubs, kebab shops (our venue tonight used to be a sex cinema before it started as a theatre in 1994) and I am reminiscing about the good times I had partying here. About seeing Franz Ferdinand for the first time in the nearby Docks. And about headbanging in the the Kaiserkeller and dancing in all the other places in the Große Freiheit and going to the now sadly closed Beatles museum Beatlemania. Opposite the Imperial Theater Kinky Boots is playing but I could watch this back in London – I like passing the building though as I went to see Cats there when I was nine years old. Which was a big event for me back then. As was seeing the district of St. Pauli for the first time. The theatre was at that time still called Operettenhaus. Now it has had so many sponsors in its name that I have stopped trying to keep up with them.
As it the early evening only tourists surround us, tourists and hen dos; locals hardly go out clubbing before midnight on a Saturday night unless they have some ticketed events booked. Hamburg established its position as the German capital of musicals over the last three decades and this is liked by some locals and despised by others. The latter seem to have found an alternative in today’s show which is a classic play – it is a Saturday night and mainly sold out.
Because the tickets have been ordered only a day before we are visiting, the two of us are not sitting together but can (and do) swap seats in the interval and while you cannot see the very top of the stage in the last row downstairs you have a great view from row number 7. I am having a good time in both parts, laugh out loud and catch myself trying to figure out the case in my head along… I fail big time which makes me like the story even more.
After lots of applause the audience is being asked (or rather threatened) not to give the plot away – and of course I will not. I think at The Mousetrap in London they asked us as well and are arguing with Wikipedia for years not to tell theirs. In this battle of defense for the freedom of information I am clearly on the authors’ and director’s side!
If anything, next time I will chose something a bit trashier – like an audio play style horror dramatisation with lots of pre-recorded dramatic noises and sounds. This effect is a personal favourite of mine, a foley artist will always be my personal superstar (in anything) and the spectacular music between the scenes tonight gave the impression that they are keen of this kind of thing here as well. And the next play lined up goes by the name Der Frosch mit der Maske. The Frog with the Mask this translates as. If I am in town, yeah – why not!
Sherlock Holmes und der Fluch des Pharao by Arthur Conan Doyle
**** out of 5 Stars
Directed by Frank Thannhäuser
Initially premiered in 2017 this play returned in 2019. Tickets from 16 Euro
The Imperial Theater’s address is Reeperbahn 5