Peter James

Looking Good Dead

05/10/21

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Superintendent Roy Grace is the protagonist of Peter James’ popular police procedurals – a diligent but troubled policeman, who’ll stop at nothing to solve a case. In Shaun McKenna’s stage adaptation of the second novel, Looking Good Dead, Grace (Harry Long) is relegated to a supporting role. Instead, the focus here is on the Bryce family, inadvertently caught up in a terrible crime. I think this is a wise move; they, after all, form the crux of the story.

Top of the bill, therefore, are soap favourites Adam Woodyatt and Gaynor Faye, as Tom and Kellie Bryce. They enjoy an affluent, suburban life. Tom works; Kellie cleans a lot; their teenage sons, Joe and Max (Luke Ward-Wilkinson), are – respectively – in Venezuela climbing mountains and on the sofa listening to silence through NOISE CANCELLING HEADPHONES. Did you get that? NOISE CANCELLING HEADPHONES. I’ll mention them again anyway, just in case. (Director Jonathan O’Boyle is clearly a fan of Chekhov’s, holding dear the great playwright’s principle: if, in the first act a character has worn noise cancelling headphones, then in the following act, someone must fail to hear something important.) It all seems fine and dandy until a stranger leaves a memory stick on Tom’s commuter train. Tom makes the rash decision to bring it home; he plans to play the good Samaritan by tracking down its owner and ensuring its return. However, when Max plugs the stick into Tom’s computer, it reveals a link… to a murder. Happening in real time before their eyes. What have they been witness to? And what will the killer do when he realises he’s been seen?

Woodyatt and Faye inhabit their characters convincingly, and I especially enjoy Ian Haughton’s performance as the enigmatic Kent. I like Sergeant Branson (Leon Stewart)’s bad jokes, and the way Grace responds to them; this shift in tone works well to undercut some of the more histrionic scenes. The way Michael Holt’s set design incorporates the villain’s lair as well as the Bryces’ home is ingenious, and I am especially impressed with the decisive way the lighting is used to move us from one to the other at the flick of a switch.

There are some issues though – and the main one is the plot. Quite frankly, it’s risible. I’m more than happy to suspend my disbelief, but this stretches the elastic beyond its capacity. I’m unconvinced by any of the characters’ motivations, and am aghast at the ineptitude of the police, who keep politely agreeing to step outside so that suspected serial killers can have a private chat. And why exactly does everyone keep talking and revealing secrets in a room they’ve been told, quite clearly, is bugged? And why exactly exactly is it being bugged in the first place?

In addition, the police station set seems clumsy in comparison to the slick kitchen/lair: it’s pushed on and pulled off with wearisome regularity, and is so small that the actors seem constrained by it. There’s no space for movement, and they lean and perch awkwardly as they deliver their lines. I’m not a fan of the bigger action scenes either; the direction here just isn’t dynamic or fleet-footed enough.

So yes, there are problems. But do I enjoy myself? Yes, I do. Looking Good Dead might be silly but it’s entertaining, and I am more than happy to be back in the environs of the lovely King’s Theatre.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

Not Dead Enough

24/04/17

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 Рespecially series with returning detectives Рare 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.

4 stars

Susan Singfield