Review – Dark Road

September 29, 2013 | By | 1 Reply More

✭✭✭✩✩   Intriguing but imperfect

Chief Superindent Isobel McArthur (Maureen Beattie) confronts Alfred Chalmers (Philip Whitchurch), with Belle Jones' Female Nurse. Photo © Douglas McBride

Chief Superindent Isobel McArthur (Maureen Beattie) confronts Alfred Chalmers (Philip Whitchurch), with Belle Jones’ Female Nurse. Photo © Douglas McBride

Royal Lyceum Theatre
Wed 25 Sept – Sat 19 Oct 2013
Review by Hugh Simpson

An excellent cast and some intriguing ideas – which are not all fully realised – mark out the Dark Road of Ian Rankin and Mark Thomson’s collaboration, which runs at the Lyceum until October 19.

Isobel McArthur, once Scotland’s first female Chief Constable but now somewhat sidelined by the amalgamation of the Scottish police services, is contemplating retirement and revisiting her past.

Twenty-five years earlier, her career was boosted by her part in the arrest of notorious serial killer Alfred Chalmers, but now she has doubts about his conviction. Meanwhile, her troubled teenage daughter Alexandra has developed her own connection to Chalmers.

Rankin’s thoroughly merited international fame as a crime writer, allied to Thomson’s theatrical experience, means the script will be under far more scrutiny than a debut writer could reasonably expect. Moreover, they have set themselves a deliberately difficult task in stating they wanted to produce a play in a genre that is rarely seen on stage.

There certainly have been many whodunnits over the years, but the more modern ‘psychological,’ police procedural crime story so popular in novels, film and television does not often appear in the theatre. Unfortunately, there are some elements of this production that seem to highlight why this might be the case.

Projections on the revolving set between scenes and Philip Pinsky’s unsettling sound bring to mind the inter-scene cuts in countless TV cop shows. This works brilliantly but only highlights the static nature of some of the action in between. Long scenes with two characters sitting at a table can be broken up on-screen by cuts, music and lighting effects; here, even performers as accomplished as Maureen Beattie (Isobel) and Philip Whitchurch (Chalmers) struggle at times to maintain the tension.

They are perhaps not helped by being so dwarfed by Francis O’Connor’s set, which is so ingenious that at times it threatens to work against the drama rather than with it.

The pace of the production is not completely consistent; interesting questions about the conflict between the truth, appearance and justice are raised, dropped and then raised again in a similar way without being developed. Characters have speeches in the second act which simply reiterate things that they have said in the first act, which highlights the way that so many of the characters are mentally stuck in the past but does not help the audience. There are scenes that in another medium would be intercut, which here are presented consecutively without greatly advancing the narrative.

Possessing superhuman powers of recovery
Maureen Beattie as Isobel McArthur and Sara Vickers as Alexandra McArthur. Photo © Douglas McBride

Maureen Beattie as Isobel McArthur and Sara Vickers as Alexandra McArthur. Photo © Douglas McBride

There are also some unanswered questions about the characters. It seems unlikely that McArthur could have been promoted so far and so quickly if her life was previously as much as a mess as is suggested. Her former boss Black Fergus, meanwhile, as well as possessing superhuman powers of recovery, does not always seem a necessary character when he appears on stage. He, like the younger police officers featured, gives every sign of being the sort of character who would be fleshed out across a series of books or programmes but is dispensable here.

There can be no doubt, however, about the quality of the cast. Beattie’s central performance is complex and subtle while Whitchurch is compelling as the convicted killer who may or may not be innocent. Robert Gwilym is excellent as Isobel’s long-term colleague Frank Bowman, managing to be both sympathetic and repulsive as a man who wants to think of himself as good but is eternally harking back to decisions of the past.

Sara Vickers (Alexandra) does a great job as a character whose dialogue does not always convince as being that of an eighteen year-old. Ron Donachie manages to dispel most of the doubts about the character of Fergus through sheer stage presence, while Nicola Roy, Jonathan Holt and Belle Jones are solid in the other roles.

Even if this is not an old-fashioned whodunnit, there are parts of the plot that cannot be revealed. Suffice it to say that the desire to produce scary moments through Thomson’s clever direction and development of the plot, rather than relying on shock tactics, is commendable. It does not always work, but when it does it works magnificently. The ending, moreover, is superbly executed and the final few minutes go a long way towards compensating for any previous shortcomings.

Robert Gwilym as Frank Bowman , Ron Donachie as Fergus McLintock and Maureen Beattie as Isobel McArthur. Photo © Douglas McBride

Robert Gwilym as Frank Bowman , Ron Donachie as Fergus McLintock and Maureen Beattie as Isobel McArthur. Photo © Douglas McBride

The names attached to this project mean that it will undoubtedly be subject to an unfair level of criticism. Had they followed the lead of JK Rowling and invented a pseudonym, there would possibly be praise for a fantastic new talent who had produced an intriguing psychological drama breaking new ground in crime theatre. However, the collaborative nature of the theatre means that this would have not have been a realistic option and it is unavoidable that some will have sky-high expectations which will inevitably be disappointed.

Nevertheless, this is an ambitious production that succeeds on many levels. Not least in its appeal to Ian Rankin’s existing fans.

Running time 2 hrs 30 mins.
Run ends Sat 19 October 2013
Tue – Sat: 7.45 pm; Wed, Sats matinees: 2.30 pm.
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street, Edinburgh, EH3 9AX

Tickets from: www.lyceum.org.uk

ENDS

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