Brighton Year-Round 2021
Adapted by Shaun McKenna from Peter James’ novel. Directed by Jonathan O’Boyle, Michael Holt’s set is on a split level. It’s lit by Jason Taylor with Max Pappenheim’s sound and composition.
Production Manager Tamsin Rose, Costume Supervisor Chrissy Maddison, Props Supervisor Robyn Hardy, CSM Nick Earle, DSM Linnea Friden Grønning, TSM Pippa Kay, Wardrobe David Morgan. Till October 16th.
Peter James charmingly introduces his latest adaptation Looking Good Dead – already a screenplay, though this theatre version is by Shaun McKenna. You might find out just how charming he’s being. Quite apart from his warning voiceover about the fate of those who don’t switch off their mobiles.
Theatre Royal Brighton is of course James’ home, and Brighton-based Commander Roy Grace its resident detective. There’s references to Archipelagos restaurant (Western Road, Hove End, north side), and PPI. Clearly the script’s been brought locally and nationally up to date. In this production Grace and his team are slightly recessed, and it’s the Bryce family foregrounded.
Looking Good Dead is on the face of it a parable of ‘no good deed goes unpunished’. It’s what Adam Woodyatt’s Tom Bryce discovers as he inserts a lost memory stick in his Mac to discover the owner’s identity to send it on. What he then sees is in fact the first scene of the play.
Very pacily directed by Jonathan O’Boyle, it’s lit by Jason Taylor with different levels for the gantry above, and an evenly-lit interior below, including a slide-in police station downstage left. Max Pappenheim’s sound and composition is either a note of effective shlock, ring-tones, or a fug of thriller low-bass. Michael Holt’s set is on a split level. Below is a sort of offcut MFI kitchen with plush fittings though overall it’s a little too shoddy for us to believe an American wants to hire its creator. A curtain backstage flutters occasionally.
Above it’s a stark, stronger set: atmospherically all murk chains and oil. This is the warehouse setting where Natalie Boakye’s escort girl Janie (struggling student lawyer paying off student debt) meets Mylo McDonald’s masked Mick, whom she’s entertained before. Only this time Janie finds herself the victim of a snuff movie with her throat slashed. Boakye morphs from slinky to viscerally terrified. Tom and his younger son Max (Luke Ward-Wilkinson) look on helplessly as Jamie dies. They’re then warned they’re not subscribers, to desist. Or else.
As his parents bicker – Gaynor Faye’s Kellie Bryce joins the fray – Max heedlessly breaks in to Scarab Productions. Then the snuff criminals break in to his father’s Mac and by trick-phoning discover the family address. Which is a bit inconvenient as up to their eyes in debt (Kellie’s overspent, an OCD recovering alcoholic, Tom’s overexpanded) an American Jonas Kent (Ian Houghton) turns up with a miraculous offer that’ll save Bryce enterprises, involving golden Rollexes. Max’s older half-brother Joe, post-uni gapping in Venezuela, warns Max over his iPhone to stay out of it, and later, let the police handle it.
This is where the trio – Harry Long’s Roy Grace, Leon Stewart’s DI Glenn Branson, and Bella Stroyan’s DC Bella Moy slide in, literally on a slimline police station in white-out windows and green livery, with a desk. Each time it retracts a police officer goes with it.
As the case builds, Janie’s body, the scarab lodged in her throat after death, the criminal net closing round the Bryce family, Grace doesn’t feel the vengeful assault on Kellie and Max is so simple. Even with planted bugs, superb detection by Max with his IT break-in skills and knowledge of passwords, it’s a dizzying confection. And there’s a released paedophile found burned to death with acid. How does he fit in? The explanation fits yet the final plotline throws up questions.
Some elements of Looking Good Dead you can guess, including identities. They fit with a satisfying click. Others are wild. There’s improbabilities, especially round Max’s earlier decisions, that you OK at the time then wonder at as the plot unfolds. But altogether it’s a sizzling, satisfying and eminently slick production.
Adam Woodyatt’s been in Eastenders and there’s always speculation as to how a TV soap actor will shape up. In fact extremely well. Woodyatt’s recognisably the chipper character he’s always been, here wholly believable as Tom, with a note of truculent cheerfulness edged through to panic and anger.
Faye too is impressive as the OCD cleaning, near-lapsed alcoholic spendthrift, with passion and ingenuity of her own, and a fierceness too in defending hers. She manages a gamut of emotions fluently and inhabits Kellie’s contradictions striking a sweet-spot of character. Her furious repartee with Woodyatt is one of the play’s highpoints.
Ward-Wilkinson’s already impressively experienced and it shows in his nerdy yet tender and ultimately teen-heroic role of Max: impulsive, over-disclosing and reckless, anxious, exasperated with his parents’ rows, stunned over his discoveries and prepared to fight.
Long’s Grace has less to do than some Graces past, yet edges his detective with instant assurance and mordant wit, always ahead of his DI. Long too brings a stillness to his part, adding authority. Grace is less conflicted this time, moving on from his long-disappeared wife with a fiancée who might bring him peace.
Stewart’s excellent at allowing his warm sidekick role of DI Branson to blossom, even in his hopeless attempts to get ahead of Grace’s wit with jokes. The best is ‘John Paul George and Ringo’ as a pun on their investigation into beetles.
Stroyan brings a reflective wit to her role of DC Bella Moy. She exudes a contained warmth, often helpless to stop people making wrong decisions, but capable of sudden acts.
McDonald brings hustle and menace to Mick, with plenty of strong-arm tactics. Boakye as we’ve seen makes a vivid brief impression. Houghton purrs a steely American charm flecked with sympathy; he’s overwhelmed with Kellie’s interior designs. Perhaps there’s a lucrative future for her too. You’ll have to find out.
A few plot points aside, this is the tightest and slickest-paced of all Peter James adaptations for theatre, a notch higher than expected. Acting is uniformly good too which isn’t a given when TV soap stars are parachuted in. Most of all the dramatic suspense proves keen and unyielding. A first-rate production with a below-par lower set. If you enjoy thrillers, you must see this.