Sean McKenna’s adaptation of Peter James’s novel is doing the rounds. It’s a Reader’s Digest version of the book, rattling through the plot at a rate of knots. There is no time for nuance and the dialogue is limited to only that which moves things forwards. But then you don’t come to these things for subtlety. What we do get is a cracking, fast-moving thriller that keeps us guessing and offers up a few surprises.
With Ian Beale (Adam Woodyatt) and his most recent on-screen Mrs (Laurie Brett) leading the cast as Tom and Kellie Brice, the play looks and sounds like a cranked-up episode of EastEnders, and indeed the acting style is not far removed from the world of soap. Woodyatt/Beale is exactly as you would expect, and he does a good job of alternating between sarcasm and desperation. Brett has more of a stretch, as the compulsive cleaner, reformed alcoholic Kellie. Completing the household is Luke Ward-Wilkinson as their 17 year old son, Max, who manages to come across as younger and younger as the action hots up.
The plot kicks off with Ian Beale bringing home a USB stick he found on a train. He recruits Max to help him access the content, with a view to returning it to the owner. They stumble across very dark material indeed, namely a live feed of a young woman being killed. Is it a fake? Is it special effects? Meanwhile, poor Ian is struggling to find clients for his business, and Jonas Kent (Ian Houghton) happens along and it looks like the Beale-Brices are out of the woods. But then Max receives a warning from the online killers…
If you switch your brain off and go along for the ride, this is a hugely enjoyable ride. Director Jonathan O’Boyle serves up suspense by the bucketful, and there’s a lot of fun to be had by trying to second-guess the plot (which I succeed in doing, if I may brag for a second!)
Recurring character Detective Superintendent Roy Grace (played this time by Harry Long) indulges in a lot of banter with his subordinates, Leon Stewart and Gemma Stroyan, adding humour to the mix as well as police-procedural jargon for authenticity. Mylo McDonald brings an air of menace as online killer Mick, who is Oirish so of course he’s called Mick.
Michael Holt’s set effectively separates the action from the on-screen and the off, while Max Pappenheim’s sound design underscores the action, although some of the ‘stings’ are a bit on the nose, veering us into the realms of melodrama.
This fast-paced roller-coaster doesn’t allow time to mull over the convenience of some of the plot points, but this isn’t True Crime, it’s crime as entertainment and as such, it fills its remit admirably. Super fun!
When Ollie and Caro and their teenage daughter move into their new ‘forever home’ they soon are made aware of the house’s shady past. Local tittle-tattle is rife and before long, strange things are afoot: objects moving, doors slamming, shadowy figures at the window…
And so the stage is set for Peter James’s haunted house thriller. Shaun McKenna’s adaptation uses every trick in the book, so to speak, to give us the conventional shocks and surprises we expect. But what makes this story fresh and alive is it is bang up-to-date, with plenty of current pop culture references along with modern technology being put to use. FaceTime and an Alexa both help further the plot, providing some scary moments.
Joe McFadden is web designer Ollie – he even gets to dance about a little for a quick Strictly in-joke – and he portrays the descent from enthusiastic sceptic to desperate believer with energy, credibility and likeability. Rita Simons plays against type (she was formerly good-time gal Roxy Mitchell in EastEnders) and is fine in a role which has lots of exposition and some great moments of reaction. Persephone Swales-Dawson’s teenaged Jade has to cope with some too-trendy-by-half dialogue, actually saying things like “OMG” and “Lol” rather than reserving such argot for online communication. She also has some great reactive moments.
There is enjoyable character work from Tricia Deighton as local hippy-dippy psychic Annie, and I like Padraig Lynch’s genial vicar, Fortinbras. Charlie Clements (another EastEnders escapee) gives strong support as computer geek, Chris, who may or may not be up to no good, while Leon Stewart makes an impression as Phil the builder.
Ian Talbot’s direction strikes a balance between building tension and releasing it, either with shocks or comic relief, abetted by Michael Holt’s gorgeously gothic set and Jason Taylor’s lighting, which is both subtle and dramatic.
Atmospheric and entertaining, this is a conventional yet effective chiller, a ghost story for our times.
Padraig Lynch, Joe McFadden, Rita Simons, and Persephone Swales-Dawson face something scarier than a PPI call…
This production gets a new lease of life in a new tour starring EastEnders double act, Kat and Alfie Moon – Jessie Wallace and Shane Richie. They certainly bring in the crowds.
Adapted by Shaun McKenna from the Peter James novel, this is a comedy thriller about sarcastic sod Victor Smiley (even his name is sarcastic) plotting to get rid of his Mrs and run off with his prostitute girlfriend and a hefty haul of insurance money. Victor is an aficionado of televised murder mysteries and thinks he’s got it taped. What he doesn’t know is that his trouble and strife has plots of her own, teaming up with her bit on the side, Don… Meanwhile, fresh out of the box Detective Constable Roy Grace smells a rat…
Richie and Wallace undoubtedly have chemistry. Away from Walford, to somewhere more middle class near Brighton, the accents have softened but their embittered, barbed dialogue sparks between them – they clearly enjoy working with each other. At first, we feel sympathy for poor neglected Joan (Wallace, bringing brittle feistiness and steely vulnerability to the role) until we learn what she’s up to too. Richie’s characterisation gives us a detestable man – one we enjoy disliking. The pair play their scenes together like virtuoso duets. Wallace’s hysteria is especially hilarious while Richie’s ruthlessness becomes rather repellent.
Simona Armstrong is also great fun as Kamila, the prostitute with psychic flashes, while Benjamin Wilkin’s detective is the innocent of the bunch, the straight man amid these heightened characters. Stephen Fletcher is an energetic Don, although his dialogue – all mockney rhyming slang and out-of-date references – is rather odd.
The plot works through its machinations, giving us moments of tension and dramatic irony along with moments of shock and even spookiness. Throughout runs a rich vein of rather dark humour – Director Ian Talbot brings the humour to the fore and there are some hilarious moments of physical comedy. Michael Holt’s split set works well to keep the action flowing, cutting from one place to another without the delay of transitions, so that the pace and tension are maintained. Mark Howett’s lighting design helps to crank up that tension.
It’s a rather straightforward, theatrically conventional piece but it works extremely well to provide an evening of cracking, satisfying entertainment. A definite crowd-pleaser.
Bickering and banter: Jessie Wallace and Shane Richie as the Smileys. (Photo: Honeybunn Photography)
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Monday 26th January 2015
Shaun McKenna’s adaptation of the Peter James novel keeps the twisty-turny plot to the fore, which is as it should be in a story of this type. It’s not so much a whodunit, a puzzle for the audience, as a theme park ride of shocks and spills. It is the plot, not the characters, that keeps us hooked in to the drama. This is fun for us but presents the actors with a particular challenge.
At times, the characters are merely mouthpieces, spouting ‘facts’ which may or may not be relevant to the subsequent action. They are ciphers rather than rounded characterisations – this is in service of the plot, which may require them to become someone other than we first encounter a little later on. And so we get some clunky attempts at dialogue – the ‘banter’(even between the police characters) does not ring true – and consequently, the acting can seem at times stilted and unconvincing.
Jamie Lomas is victim-in-chief Michael, looking forward to his stag night. There is some excruciating mateyness with his best man and partner in crime. A prank goes awry and Michael finds himself buried alive in a coffin. Yet it is within these confines that Lomas is set free. Using mainly his voice to express his mounting distress, he gives the performance of the night.
Rik Makarem is best mate Mark, and does a good job of squirming under pressure. Tina Hobley is strikingly beautiful as bride-to-be Ashley; there are surprises in store from both of them. Uncle Brad (Michael McKell) has a Canadian accent that is ropier than a piece of string – But I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, given the way the plot goes…
Josh Brown’s simple-minded Davey adopts a TV-style accent which he punctuates with Northern English – another strong depiction of distress – yet he also provides most of the comic touches, through characterisation rather than ham-fisted dialogue.
Sarah Baxendale is underused as the psychic friend to the star detective Roy Grace – here portrayed with calm assertiveness by Gray O’Brien. Marc Small enlivens every scene he’s in as Detective Sergeant Branson.
The split-level set by Michael Taylor works well to establish a range of locations, enabling the action to keep flowing, but I don’t think the car that wheels on and off is at all necessary, when so much of the scenery is suggested through lighting and sound. Also, a team of stage hands shifting scenery on half the stage during the penultimate scene is distracting, to put it mildly.
Director Ian Talbot builds suspense and surprise so that we care what happens next, even if we don’t give a toss about any of the characters involved.
New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 10th November, 2014
All the love has gone from the marriage of Victor and Joan Smiley. She is having an affair with a bit of rough and he is a regular client to a Polish prostitute who happens to be psychic (she can see you coming). Victor is plotting to murder his wife and run off with Kamila, who in the mean time is using her psychometric abilities to help the police find murder victims. Add in a likeable but inexperienced young detective inspector and the stage is set for a lively evening of laughter, thrills and suspense.
Shaun McKenna’s adaptation of Peter James’s novel is very funny – the bickering between the central couple is acerbic and sometimes cruel – and it’s played to the hilt by Robert Daws and Dawn Steele, who both drip with bitter sarcasm. Gray O’Brien is energetic as Joan’s bit of stuff, while Simona Armstrong’s Kamila pulls off some potentially awkward scenes of psychic flashes. Thomas Howes teases out the tension as D.C. Grace. It’s not so much a whodunit but a will-they-get-away-with-it, and there are shocks and twists along the way.
Michael Holt’s split level set gives us four rooms all at once so the action can keep flowing without any pesky scene changes, (keeping a chest freezer centre stage…) Mark Howett’s lighting and Martin Hodgson’s sound enhance the suspense and bring a touch of the supernatural to the proceedings. Director Ian Talbot places emphasis on the fun – we enjoy the performers even if we find the characters deplorable.
With its many references to popular crime fiction, the play is a refreshing change from the country house, drawing room, murder mysteries that usually do the rounds. Not only is there a discussion of which Sherlock Holmes has the best bum, there is a knowingness that informs the plot: the characters have all ‘seen it on the telly’ and so has the audience, but The Perfect Murder is fresh and engaging. You are guaranteed a good night out with this entertaining black comedy chiller.