King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
Murder mysteries are extremely popular, particularly, it seems, when presented in book or TV form: police procedurals regularly top the TV rankings, and crime novels – especially series with returning detectives – are big-hitters too. Peter James, for example, has sold over 18 million copies of his books worldwide.
In my experience, however, such stories tend to be less successful when performed on stage, unless they’re played for melodrama and for laughs. Because, let’s face it, the stories are often ludicrous, featuring crimes of such demented complexity and ingenuity that they require a very strong suspension of disbelief. And the schlocky side of things is more exposed on stage than it is in other forms: there’s no easy cutting away, no close-ups, no internal dialogue.
There are non-naturalistic techniques, of course, which could more than compensate for the shortcomings, but in this production – and in others I’ve seen – these are eschewed for a more realistic approach. But, while I sometimes think this is a shame, in this particular instance, it seems to work. Okay, so there are a few awkward moments which provoke incongruous laughter from the audience but, for the most part, playing it straight serves the production well.
Bill Ward plays Superintendent Roy Grace, the central character in James’ “Dead” series. He suits the role, displaying just the right balance between gravitas and levity. He’s ably assisted by Laura Whitmore as Cleo Morey, who serves as both love interest and pathologist. But the starring role is – of course – the chief suspect Brian Bishop, played with absolute relish by Stephen Billington.
The piece is pacy, well-structured and very engaging. The two-tier set keeps us firmly in the world of work, switching between the police station and the path lab, with the domestic sphere very much off-stage.
And, if the final pay-off is as preposterous as it is audacious, it really doesn’t seem to matter, as this is a genuinely exciting tale – a cracking good night at the theatre.