Wish You Were Dead
Theatre Royal Brighton
Director: Jonathan O’Boyle
Monday March 20 – Saturday March 25
Peter James is a prolific author of dozens of crime fiction stories and just happens to be a Brighton local – the setting for his Roy Grace detective novels. His homes or places he’s visited have also been the inspiration for several of his books, and those books now form a massive catalogue of work, some years are witness to the emergence of no fewer than four published novels. Mr James is quite the darling of the Brighton area and its environs, he is often the main feature of many a Waterstones window and makes the odd appearance at a performance of his plays, which unsurprisingly are incredibly well attended. ‘Wish You Were Dead’ is the sixth of Peter James’ sell out stage shows, and judging by the queue outside the Theatre Royal Brighton on opening night, it’s predicted to be just as successful as the previous five.
Roy Grace, in this production ably played by George Rainsford (Casualty, Waking the Dead), is James’ fairly bland, happily attached, apparently unflawed police superintendent who is the central character of some 20 of Peter James’ novels – all of which I believe have the word ‘dead’ in the title, which can cause some considerable confusion. Some people may be aware that the excellent John Simm (of ‘Ashes to Ashes’ fame) is currently cast in the role of Grace on TV.
Apparently ‘Wish You Were Dead’ was the inspiration for a new story when Mr and Mrs James were driving to a holiday destination in France. Due to traffic the couple were extremely late, eventually arriving at a creepy chateau and greeted by a plainly unwelcoming proprietor. Although thankfully no murders were subsequently committed, the author has pretty much kept to his own experience in the play’s opening scenes and circumstances.
The set is impressive, (well done Splinter Scenery) even though it appears as not unlike a British baronial pile, complete with massive animal trophy heads, a suit of armour, and with a cleverly visible master bedroom woven into the set at the top of the few stairs, which most of the cast spent a great deal of time running up and down. The action kicks off in good old fashioned Agatha Christie style with Grace and his partner Cleo (Giovanna Fletcher: ‘The Boat that Rocked’ film, 2.22 Ghost Story and also a writer) arriving late during a satisfyingly loud and scary storm, at a seemingly unoccupied spooky chateau. Baby Noah, who is portrayed by a tiny doll who occasionally mews but is otherwise quite unnervingly static and un-babylike, is happily tended by the family nanny and friend Kaitlynn (brilliantly played with a faultless American accent by Gemma Stroyan). For me at least, Ms Stroyan delivered the stand out performance of the play.
Kaitlynn’s partner is missing and there is no word from him, partly because of the lack of wi-fi, landline or any other means of communication so the spiky co-owner of the chateau, Madame L’Eveque (Rebecca McKinnis), happily informs them. We find out what has happened to Jack (Alex Stedman) around half way through the first act, with the use of an ingenious technique of projecting the scene of his whereabouts over the bedroom, something I’m still completely mystified by but found incredibly impressive!
Lights fuse, there are sinister goings on, alarming unexplained noises, and still no Jack, all of which produce a tense atmosphere in the auditorium, that ‘something nasty in the woodshed’ is about to be revealed. These are the best bits in the fast moving first act. However, the second act kind of descends into farce and there was definitely, for me, rather a drawn out conclusion to events, with a couple of hand guns and what looked like a musket being constantly waved about by the villain of the piece, Curtis, played by the well-known and truly wonderful Clive Mantle, (coming with an extensive catalogue including Of Mice and Men, The Ladykillers, Rattle of a Simple Man and much more). Mantle gives us a camp, comic caricature performance as a gruff, slightly mad villain delivering a nasty rant whilst threatening imminent death to Roy and Cleo (and possibly the doll baby), who show amazing stoicism throughout. Maintaining occasional looks of horror on their faces, in the light of the possibility of their baby – having been snatched away by an evil unhinged woman – never to be seen alive again, looked like hard work. Plus Curtis had already ordered the death of poor Kaitlynn. As you would expect from the talented Mr Mantle, his timing is spot on and he certainly gives us plenty of laughs. Although ……. I’m still not sure whether this play is meant to be funny, or just have comical overtones, which are two different things. And I’m afraid, in my opinion, the script did not do justice to the talents of the cast in this particular production.
There was clearly a lot of delight in the audience on opening night, and overall ‘Wish You Were Dead‘ was entertaining if rather predictable, however for me the scary early promise did not quite follow through, sadly. I guess I just relish productions of this genre that have a meatier plot, and being frightened a bit more. Definitely one for all those Peter James afcionados out there, it will be yet another triumph for the fandom!
2 hours including 20 minute interval
Reviewer: Gill Ranson