King’s Theatre, Edinburgh – until 5 March 2016
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
There is considerable entertainment in Peter James’ The Perfect Murder, an unremarkable, grimly humorous murder mystery elevated by the efforts of Shane Richie and Jessie Wallace.
Best known for their portrayals of Alfie and Kat Moon in EastEnders, here they play Brighton-based IT manager Victor Smiley and his younger wife Joan, a jaded married couple who both entertain ideas of removing their spouse. Any notions that this is purely stunt casting, or that the duo will be trading on their reputations, are soon squashed by performances of skill and comic nous.
The play is adapted from a short novella by the bestselling James, here rejigged to include a younger version of his regular detective Roy Grace, confusingly portrayed as a younger tyro DC despite the obviously present-day setting.
It must be admitted, however, that, despite the odd reference that clearly signals contemporaneity, this seems to inhabit one of those dated, yet non-specific, periods of time that murder mysteries often make use of. In this case, it is a time when massive wall-mounted flatscreen TVs and huge chest freezers were equally sought-after consumer goods – or equally important plot devices at any rate.
The story’s origins in a novella can be seen in the decidedly odd structure of Shaun McKenna’s adaptation. Much of the first half is taken up by protracted marital bickering between Victor and Joan, while the second act is more devoted to supernatural tinges and macabre farce. You do not have to strain very hard to see the twists coming, and there are plot points that do not bear too close an examination.
Nevertheless, the construction is sturdy enough, and Ian Talbot’s direction ensures a taut and pacy production. This is aided by Michael Holt’s large, split-level set featuring all of the necessary playing areas built on top of each other; such a device often detracts from the action but it works very well here.
Jessie Wallace and Shane Richie. Photo: Honeybunn Photography
There is no doubt, however, that the production’s strength is the central duo of Richie and Wallace.
They spark off each other to a pleasing degree; not surprisingly, they are entirely familiar with each other’s style and presence, but it never settles into comfort. Instead, there is considerable energy to the way they sustain a sequence of weak jokes in that overlong first half. It is reminiscent of a low-rent Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – surely an idea if the duo want to find another high-profile vehicle.
When they are not on stage together, there is a definite lull in proceedings – although Wallace in particular manages to milk any solo possibility for dark humour with excellent timing without ever quite going too far, and manages the difficult feat of making Joan simultaneously monstrous and sympathetic.
The other performances are more than adequate – Stephen Fletcher’s mockney cabbie Don is solid, while Benjamin Wilkin’s DC Grace is upstanding and decent enough to forestall the obvious objection that he doesn’t really need to be in the play at all.
Simona Armstrong, meanwhile, manages the potentially hugely problematic role of Kamila, the comic Croat sex worker with second sight (yes, really) about as well as could be imagined, making her at least partially believable.
This is a largely undemanding affair. But is always at least workmanlike, while Richie and Wallace’s efforts mean it is never less than enjoyable.
Running time – 2 hours 25 minutes (including one interval)
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street EH3 9LQ
Monday 29 February – Saturday 5 March 2016
Evenings: 7.30pm; Weds & Sat matinees: 2.30pm
Tickets and details: www.edtheatres.com/perfectmurder
Perfect Murder tour website: http://theperfectmurder.co.uk/
Perfect Murder on Facebook: perfmur
Perfect Murder on Twitter: @PerfMurder
The Perfect Murder on tour:
Mon 29 Feb – Sat 5 March
0131 529 6000
Mon 7 – Sat 12 March
0844 871 7650
Mon 14 – Sat 19 March
Mon 21 – Sat 26 March
Mon 28 March – Sat 2 April
024 7655 3055