Interview with Joe Derrington: The Real Life NHS Hero Who’s Playing Dr Watson

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Image Credit: Blackeyed Theatre

It’s a cold, rainy day in early 2023 when The Indiependent sits down for a chat with Blackeyed Theatre’s Joe Derrington: a fitting setting given we are discussing the upcoming suspenseful production of Sherlock Holmes: The Valley of Fear. Having worked for the NHS himself, Joe has a unique insight into the life of a doctor and we are curious to hear how this will impact his performance as Holmes’ faithful companion Dr Watson.

The Indiependent: Sherlock Holmes is such a well-known story with these really eccentric characters we all know and love. So how is this production bringing something new to the story?

Joe: Well the whole of first part of the book takes place in the UK, and the whole of the second part takes place in the US. With a lot of Sherlock Holmes plays and stories you have the mystery happen first, and then you have the backstory. I think what makes this one different is that Nick, the writer, has tried to interloop everything together in his adaptation. So the scenes as they go through the story flip between the US and the UK, and the audience is kind of following along chronologically until you get to what happens at the end. Obviously I’m not going to give too much away! 

Most people have probably read the story and know what happens, but for those that haven’t there’s a nice little surprise coming. So I think it’s that idea of trying to keep the audience engaged with the whole story developing all at once rather than the mystery, then the backstory you usually see in the Sherlock stories. 

The Indiependent: And Dr Watson is such an iconic character, how does it feel to be stepping into his shoes?

Joe: Well, it’s not particularly nice having a moustache for an extended period of time! They’ve kind of gone out of fashion since the 1800s. It’s a fine line, everyone’s got their favourite version of Holmes and Watson, or Watson in particular. For younger people now I think it’s probably Martin Freeman or Jude Law. I’m neither as good looking as Jude Law or as talented as Martin Freeman, but I think what we’ve tried to do is avoid Watson being the usual bumbling, almost fool of a sidekick.

He’s a doctor, first of all, so he’s quite an intelligent person in his own right, but Holmes is just off the scale. So we’ve tried to bring this intelligence to Watson, and in this particular production I think it’s quite nice having this clear emotional journey with Holmes and Watson, which I don’t think is explored a huge amount from Holmes’ side because Holmes is almost a robotic, emotionless force. But we have a couple of scenes which really show the vulnerability between the two of them, which I think is quite different from a lot of other productions and which me and Luke, who plays Sherlock, have quite enjoyed exploring.

The Indiependent: And is that what you love most about Dr Watson? Is it his intelligence, or his vulnerability, or something else entirely? 

Joe: I think it’s his ever-constant support. He is the friend that you can trust and rely upon always. He’s battered quite a lot emotionally throughout the whole Holmes saga, and he’s still there as a constant. I think that’s my favourite part about him.

Not that I’m emotionally battered myself! That’s not the case. But I like to feel that I’m the sort of person where, if my friends pick up the phone and they call me or they text me, I’ll always try to help and to be there. So it’s just that similarity between us that I find most endearing about him. 

The Indiependent: And you, of course, are in the very unique position of having your own insight into the life of a doctor having worked as a clinician in the NHS and for the London Ambulance Service. So I was wondering how your time working as a doctor influenced your portrayal of Doctor Watson?

Joe: So, not a Doctor yet! Hopefully by September 2023 I will be studying for it. But I don’t know if it has particularly helped too much. I played Watson a while back before I ever did the NHS work. I also did a lot of private medical work, a lot of music festivals and things, so I had patient experience before I first played Watson. I don’t know if it’s particularly helped with that, it’s very, very different to acting.

A lot of actors go into medicine and vice versa, a lot of doctors go into the arts. I think for me the thing that’s helped most is… one of the things I was told at university before I go on stage is that no one’s going to die. It’s art, no one’s going to die! Just relax, do your own thing. Whereas in my other job now, people may actually die. So it’s given me a much more relaxed feel when I’m on stage, to realise that nothing truly terrible is going to happen, so I can have fun. 

Maybe that’s shown a sort of relaxed nature in Watson as well. The director, after the rehearsal period, mentioned that Watson this time feels a lot more relaxed in general. Maybe that’s what it is! I’m just using my darker job to chill out on stage.

The Indiependent: For sure, so it’s put the stakes into perspective a little bit?

Joe: Yeah, exactly. You know, I still try to play the stakes of the production, but nobody’s going to drop dead – fingers crossed. Otherwise I’ll have to jump off stage and do my other thing!

The Indiependent: You’re about to embark on what I imagine is a very tiring journey, covering 31 venues in the space of 5 months. How are you preparing for that?

Joe: A lot of coffee, and as much sleep as I can get. I’ve got a calendar here [points behind him] so my partner can see exactly where I am in the country. It’s tough and it’s gruelling. People think that actors just walk on the stage, do their thing, and then walk off. There’s a lot more to a mid-scale touring production. The get-ins, the get-outs, the drives. 

Thankfully, once we’ve done the get-ins and the get-outs the actors can just do our own thing. Our stage manager, Jay, and the rest of the team, have so much work to do. They’re in the theatre all day pretty much until we leave, so they’re working a lot harder than I am! But I’m just relaxing and resting whenever I can.

I’m also looking forward to seeing what’s coming up and trying to explore places that I haven’t been.

The Indiependent: Well that leads on nicely to our next question: are there any venues you’re particularly looking forward to visiting?

Joe: I don’t think Barnstable or Exeter were on the last tour, so while we’re down there I’m looking forward to seeing what we might be able to see. We’ve been to Bolton before, we had a week at the theatre there, we went to the top of the tower and did all the touristy things. I think moments like that help with getting through the work. And spending time with the rest of the cast as well, because we all get on thankfully. All of these guys are amazing and I’m loving working with Luke again. 

I’m also looking forward to visiting Wakefield. It’s a really nice theatre and my family are near there so they’ll be able to come and see me. We did Halifax already. Halifax Viaduct is a traverse theatre, so instead of the audience being on just one side they were on two. So we had to restage the production and we’re doing it again for Scarborough which is in the round. I’m quite looking forward to Scarborough and seeing how we can adapt and change things. 

The Indiependent: That’s great! So you’ve got some time over the next few months to get really settled in the piece before you start adapting it.

Joe: Yeah! Although we thought we’d done that with Halifax. We’ve been on the road since the middle of September, so we’d done it for two months, and we thought “yeah, this is alright, how hard can it be?”. It’s quite hard! Quite hard, changing the whole thing.

The Indiependent: And finally, just for a bit of fun, what are your pre show rituals?

Joe: Watching other people warm up! Most actors do these vocal warm-ups, and I do like to do a bit of a vocal warm-up myself. Luke’s got a great warm-up on his phone that he plays for us, so we do that. If there’s a piano there I’ll try and relax a bit and play the piano. And that’s really it! I’m really boring. 

I do think I have to do a bit more of a physical warm-up now too. I’m not a hugely physical person, but after the first leg of the tour I started getting quite bad back pain. A friend of mine who’s a physio said it might be because of the limp I’ve incorporated as part of Dr Watson, who walks with a cane. So I think I’m going to have to do a physical warm-up to stop the back pain at the end of the second leg of the tour. It was quite difficult! So yeah, let’s say a proper physical warm-up from now on too. 
The game is afoot in this original production, jam-packed with live music, stylish theatricality, and magical story-telling. For more information and to book tickets, visit Blackeyed Theatre’s website.

Words by Kate Padley


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