Not Dead Enough (Richmond Theatre)

Not Dead Enough (Richmond Theatre, until Saturday, March 18th)

A murder case which ended unsatisfactorily a decade ago rears its grisly head again for Brighton police when a new series of killings appears to be the work of the same suspect.

Not Dead Enough is the third of bestselling writer Peter James’ thrillers to hit the stage and the second of his popular series featuring Detective Superintendent Roy Grace to be turned into a play.

The play opens with the murder of socialite Katie Bishop and the most obvious suspect seems to be her husband, Brian, and even more so as the body count rises. As the evidence stacks up against Bishop, who keeps protesting his innocence, the police are left wondering if he really is the psychopathic killer with a penchant for kinky sex – for surely DNA never lies?

Once again Shaun McKenna is the adaptor of what is in fact the third title in the Grace series and he has the difficult task of turning James’ engrossing and meticulously researched book into a drama that will live up to the expectations of those familiar with the story and provide a captivating piece of theatre for audiences who don’t know the book.

It doesn’t work quite so well as the first adaptation: a lot of twists and turns are present but it veers a little too often into the realm of the comic or downright silly. The villain’s cackling final scene resembles the sort of thing you’d expect in a cartoon, and it would be no surprise to see an appearance by Scooby Doo and the Mystery gang.

The increasingly unlikely plot (which seems considerably more preposterous on stage than it did in the engaging, tightly-woven and intricate novel, which James has said was one of his favourites) signposts its unoriginal twists so early that the best Sussex police can offer are often playing catch-up with the audience, who at Richmond were inclined to discuss or even shout out what was coming before it actually happened.

It is hard to tell if the uneven handling of the story and the serious lack of character development is down to McKenna, or to the usually reliable director Ian Talbot. Both were involved in the two earlier productions of the author’s crime thrillers, yet this misses the edge of your seat, nail-biting touch that made the first Roy Grace offering Dead Simple so good.

Peter James famously said he hoped Michael Fassbender would play Grace in a screen version of the books. Shane Richie is clearly not of the same calibre, yet he manages to create a down to earth, thoughtful, sensible detective determined to find the killer and also get to the bottom of the mysterious disappearance of his wife several years before. While Richie doesn’t nail the character who is so vivid and likeable on the written page, he has a shabby charm that would seriously make him perfect to play Peter Falk’s American homicide detective Columbo.

Laura Whitmore makes her professional acting debut in the role of chief mortuary technician Cleo Morey, providing a love interest for Grace. It will be interesting to see how much her confidence and on-stage personality grows should she decide to stick with acting in preference to her usual presenting roles.

Stephen Billington has the tough job of playing Brian Bishop, with a large chunk of the action being the confrontations he has with Grace. His character is nowhere near as layered or smoothly smug as in the book (oddly there are times when one is reminded of Batman’s arch-nemesis The Joker here, such is the lack of subtlety), and he is often reduce to ranting, though understandably shortcuts have to be taken in the confines of a two-and-a-quarter-hour play.

Fans of Roy Grace will certainly be pleased to see two of the series’ endearing characters given such prominence and in many ways the sidekicks could even be said to have the acting edge. Michael Quartey is excellent as detective Glenn Branson, Grace’s witty colleague, and Gemma Stroyan is lovely as the hard-working Bella Moy – complete with box of Maltesers on her office desk. Let’s hope we see both invited back for future page to stage translations.

Michael Holt’s three-stage set works remarkably well, allowing the action to change swiftly between the detectives’ office, police interview room and mortuary, and this effect is heightened thanks to Jason Taylor’s lighting.

The ultimate appeal of Not Dead Enough is likely to be to those unfamiliar with the books, as this production makes the story the kind of thriller-lite fare served up on afternoon TV rather than the edgier post-watershed material it should be.

David Guest

Photo, Mark Douet