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Review: Dead Simple at Newcastle Theatre Royal

Peter James crime thriller has the Theatre Royal audience on the edge of its seats as they wonder whodunit

****
Alastair Muir A scene from Dead Simple, at Newcastle Theatre Royal
A scene from Dead Simple, at Newcastle Theatre Royal

This is a crime thriller that finds ‘soap’ bad boy Jamie Lomas (Warren Fox in Hollyoaks) in the tightest of tight spots.

His character, property developer Michael Harrison, is buried in a coffin as a stag night prank by a group of mates you frankly could do without.

In fact, as things transpire, he will be without them shortly... and in the circumstances, that is very bad news indeed for him.

With these mates off the scene, who can he possibly turn to in a bid to be exhumed?

Peter James is one of our foremost crime writers, a crafty plotter with an understanding of police procedure and not one to shy away from a truly spine-chilling scenario.

Alastair Muir A Scene from Dead Simple, at Newcastle Theatre Royal
A Scene from Dead Simple, at Newcastle Theatre Royal

It’s his voice, in fact, warning us before ‘curtain up’ to switch mobile phones off... or else!

This was the novel, published in 2005, that introduced Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, a shrewd cop with the customary baggage (in his case a missing wife and a willingness to resort to psychics to bust crimes).

I had just read it, avidly turning its several hundred pages. No wonder 16 million people have read a Roy Grace novel. They grip mercilessly.

But how the heck, I wondered, would a novel of such length and scope transfer to the stage?

With a lot of judicious cutting and a good bit of judicious adding is the answer.

Modes of murderous despatch are subtly changed and scenes jiggled around. A car chase is crystallised into something snappier and the thing is done inside two hours, 20 minutes.

Alastair Muir A Scene from Dead Simple, at Newcastle Theatre Royal
A Scene from Dead Simple, at Newcastle Theatre Royal

It’s a neat job by Shaun McKenna, who adapted the book, and director Ian Talbot must take credit for the fact that the audience was hanging on every twist, turn and utterance.

Since the novel was fresh in my mind, I was surprised only by the things that weren’t quite as they were in the James original.

I wouldn’t recommend this. If you’re going to see a play based on a book, see the play and then read the book. That said, the place was packed and many of my fellow audience members must have read it too – along with all subsequent Roy Grace novels, I shouldn’t wonder.

But you could have heard a pin drop – until the silence was broken by a gasp or occasional laughter. McKenna brings out the humour of the James novel as well as the horror.

The cast is good – Tina Hobley as too-perfect Ashley, Rik Makarem as shifty Mark, Gray O’Brien as Grace and Marc Small as sidekick Branson – but all are there to serve a racing plot.

I would have liked more about Grace. But he had a ‘corpse’ to find so there wasn’t time.

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