BWW Reviews: DEAD SIMPLE, New Alexandra Theatre Birmingham, June 29 2015
Peter James is synonymous with crime fiction. Following the acclaim received by the stage adaptation of A Perfect Murder last year, Dead Simple is the next novel to receive the same treatment (adapted by Shaun McKenna). The book was an overnight sensation and is now a number one best-seller so it was an obvious choice for the producers. Based on James' research, it seems that the vast majority of people fear fear itself: breaking this down further, the fear of being alone and in this story's case, being buried alive. This is a seemingly universal fear that James experienced head-on when writing this book.
The key thread of this story is a stag night prank that goes wrong but as the play unfolds, there is a lot more to this than meets the eye. James is excellent at creating layers to his plot and this is a very exciting and somewhat essential tool in the crime fiction genre. Ian Talbot directs the company well, particularly with their character choices and the playing space is extensively used. Michael Taylor's set seems a little battered and unloved unfortunately. The apartment dominating stage left is meant to be a lavish setting overlooking the Brighton seafront but unfortunately it did not appear this way. The stage right space is on two levels which admittedly is nice for variation and works particularly well in Act Two. Mark Howett's lighting is a shady affair in places with actors not being lit the whole time but this could be a blocking or re-light issue. This appeared atmospheric in Act Two but in the bright apartment state, the shadows looked wrong. The different settings seemed blurry rather than defined and this is probably where the problem lies.
The cast consists of a series of well-known TV serial drama actors: Jamie Lomas, Rik Makarem, Tina Hobley, Michael McKell and Gray O'Brien. Lomas and Hobley play engaged couple Michael and Ashley, with Makarem as Michael's best friend Mark, McKell as Ashley's uncle Bradley and O'Brien as star of the book series Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. Relationships between them are not totally as they seem and whereas the chemistry is very good between Lomas and Hobley, she does not appear to have the same connection with the other men. Lomas does an excellent job tapping into the far-fetched but terrifying situation of being buried alive. He goes through a clear journey emotionally and the audience can sense that. Makarem gives a good performance and I too felt his heightened levels of anxiety. The character of Roy Grace does not seem as paramount in this play as in The Perfect Murder. There is no clear defining moment of realisation when he pieces together the actions and reasoning behind the events of the week. The other characters do this as the story progresses, leaving O'Brien with a lesser role to play. Davey Wheeler, played by Josh Brown, is an interesting character. He is a teenager who has an obsession with US cop dramas and it is he whom Michael reaches over his walkie-talkie when trapped in the coffin. His performance needs honing a little as it is very frenetic and his dialogue is difficult to understand a large bulk of the time but character-wise, he makes some good decisions.
Twists and turns aplenty, Dead Simple makes a competent transfer to stage and, with a few tweaks, could be excellent.
Dead Simple plays at the New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham until 4 July and is currently touring until mid-July.