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REVIEW: Dark Road – The Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

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This article was originally written for and published by The Public Reviews

Writers: Ian Rankin & Mark Thomson

Director: Mark Thomson

The Public Reviews Rating: ★★★★☆

Crime fiction may be the biggest selling literary genre in the UK but excepting the output of the late ‘Queen of Crime’ Agatha Christie, it hasn’t exactly figured large on the theatrical stage. Britain’s biggest selling crime novelist Ian Rankin and Lyceum artistic director Mark Thomson have set about redressing the balance in their psychological crime thriller Dark Road.

Isobel McArthur (Maureen Beattie) is a thirty year police veteran, Scotland’s first female Chief Constable, mother to a challenging 18 year old daughter and fast approaching retirement with a nagging doubt that just won’t go away. Was the conviction of Alfred Chalmers (Philip Whitchurch), on the basis of a single piece of flimsy forensic evidence, for the murder of four young Edinburgh women, sound? 25 years on Isobel decides to revisit the case to the horror of both her fellow officers and her daughter. The doubts escalate to the point where Isobel questions everything and everyone she knows.

If the measure of a play’s success is the quietness of its audience, coupled with unwavering gazes and complete stillness for the duration of a performance, then Dark Road is unquestionably a winner. Save for occasional gasps, some collective jaw-dropping and one lonely cough, the audience sat enthralled for the entirety of its two and a half hour running time. Dark Road retains the complexities and gritty realism of Rankin’s books and like any good crime novel provides enough twists and turns to keep the audience guessing until the very last scene. The only criticism that could be levelled at the piece is that there are a couple of scenes of slightly unnatural and at times, clunky dialogue but these are entirely understandable and necessary due to the theatrical constraints; everything has to be played out and stated on stage for the story to be established. That said, they don’t in anyway detract from the overall quality or pace of the piece. The second act is a masterclass in psychological drama, ramping up both the thrills and tension at a head-spinning pace.

The central performances are of such a universally high quality that it seems churlish to single anyone out but Beattie’s strength and authority shines through in her highly convincing portrayal of Isobel. Ron Donachie, as ever, brings a gravelly gravitas to the role of retired Inspector McLintock and Philip Whitchurch, is in turn chilling and convincingly innocent as Chalmers.

The set design by Francis O’Connor, is a marvel, rotating and transforming, twisting and turning to reflect the plot and coupled with an almost subliminal sound design by composer Philip Pinsky is significant  in helping establish the unsettling atmosphere that pervades throughout.

To say that Ian Rankin’s debut play has been much anticipated is an understatement and there is no doubt that this is an audience pleaser. Utterly gripping, gritty and great entertainment, this is a welcome and long overdue addition to the theatrical thriller genre.

Runs until 19 October

REVIEW: London – Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Originally written for and published by The Public Reviews

Essentially two plays with a London commonality, these works by the prolific writer Simon Stephens make a powerful impact but provide very different theatrical experiences.

T5 opens on a lone woman (Abby Ford) in a hotel room, we watch as she acts out the innermost thoughts which are transmitted to us through a headset. Her movements as unpredictable as her quickly shifting thoughts, we sift through the random snippets to piece together why and how she is here. Witness to a fatal crime, but choosing not to intervene, her re-assessment of her life and her attempt to leave it, and London behind, seemingly the consequence of a guilt she can’t shake.

While the headset transports us into the mind of the woman, the piece lacks the impact that directly addressing an audience has. Ford’s movements are too stylised to be believable and the piece feels more like a flight of fancy than a genuine journey into the mind of a troubled soul.

The plays transition from one to another in the time it takes the audience to remove their headsets and the stage crew to quickly strip the set back to its bare bones.

Actor Cary Crankson steps out and immediately begins to engage with the audience in the fully lit auditorium. Quickly drawing us in, he shares some amusing and well told anecdotes about his family, his job and the recent family holiday to visit his father-in-law in France. Despite the jovial banter there is a prevailing sense of unease throughout the monologue. Writer Stephens has an ear for narrative and tantalises us in the method of the storytelling, we watch, amused, engaged, but unsettled, and wait for the killer blow to be delivered, when the moment arrives its power has all the more impact. It is skilfully done, in the midst of the amiable chat it comes, in a few words, the gut-wrenching heart of the tale.

At only half an hour in length, Sea Wall, packs an emotional punch and Crankson’s naturalistic delivery shows that the most truly powerful theatre comes from the ability of the actor to spellbind an audience with simple storytelling.

Previously stand alone plays, the two work well staged as successive monologues providing an interesting theatrical contrast to one another, but it is the combination of Sea Wall and Crankson who are the stand-outs of the evening.

Runs until: 17 November

Images: PainesPlough