Peter James is a prolific and highly successful author in the crime thriller genre whose novels, featuring Brighton-based Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, have sold 21 million copies worldwide and have topped the Sunday Times bestseller list an impressive 19 times.
There is even a hit TV show featuring the character (played by John Simm) currently doing the rounds on ITV that just wrapped up its 3rd season, with a fourth being produced for next year.
On the stage: Wish You Were Dead is the 6th of James’ novels to be adapted, making it: “the most successful modern-day crime stage franchise since Agatha Christie.” Shaun McKenna returns to adapt this one, having been responsible for all previous adaptations, with Jonathan O’Boyle taking the helm as director.
The story opens with Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, played by George Rainsford (Casualty), and his medical examiner wife, Cleo Grace, played by Katie McGlynn (Coronation Street), attempting to take a break from their sleuthing while taking a holiday together with their infant son in a château in the French countryside.
Predictably, things do not work out for the couple, and it soon turns into a holiday from hell. After all…. crime doesn’t take a vacation.
They arrive at the chateau, only to find it isn’t all that it was advertised to be.
It’s seen better days, and the housekeeper, Madame L’Eveque, played by Rebecca McKinnis (Beauty and the Beast), is the least welcoming host imaginable, begrudgingly attending to her duties as host and, as caretaker for the mysteriously absent aristocrat, Vicomte L’Eveque, played by the anagram loving Vince Mallet (I’ll leave that one for the amateur sleuths out there to figure out).
It’s a show of two halves.
The first half is filled with atmosphere and suspense, setting itself up as a traditional haunted house story.
The usual tropes associated with the genre being explored, like the mysteriously disconnected phone lines and drained car battery, stranding the couple miles from civilisation.
Suits of armour seem to be possessed, and eyes on paintings and taxidermy mounts on the walls mysteriously follow the characters’ gaze.
Honestly, I was getting scooby doo vibes for parts of the opening half.
And I don’t mean that to be interpreted as a negative thing. It is a true testament to the work of designer Michael Holt, as well as lighting and sound designers, Jason Taylor and Max Pappenheim, that the château at the centre of the show feels like a character in its own right.
The creative use of lighting gives a real sense of the grand scale of the château.
Not an inch of the set is superfluous, effectively partitioning the areas of the château and even providing a few surprises that will leave you wondering… ‘how did they do that?’
As good as the first half is, the second is where it starts to stumble.
Without wanting to give anything away, as soon as the curtain rises after intermission, the audience is subjected to almost endless exposition, seemingly detailing every plot point (from a long series) that led up to that moment.
It seems to me that the creative team deemed it necessary to bring the uninitiated up to speed but in the process, ruin all of the momentum and atmosphere that had been building nicely throughout the first half.
Furthermore, for the die-hard fans of the series, who do not require the lengthy ‘previously on….’ section, it is a section where they are essentially being told, at length, a plot that they are already familiar with.
The inclusion of the character Kaitlynn Carter, played ably by Jayda Kariuki (Grime Kids), as a nanny for the Graces seems to only serve the purpose of being a device through which the showrunners can deliver this lengthy tirade.
As she is unfamiliar with the backstory, it enables Grace, to launch into a lengthy explanation, for ‘her’ benefit.
Where the story stumbles, the acting never does, with top-notch performances from all involved throughout, especially in the case of the villains, who, as it should be, get the best material to work with.
The introduction of Curtis, in the second half, played by the commanding Clive Mantle (Game of Thrones), adds an intensity to the show that demands the audience’s full attention.
Throughout the performance, I couldn’t help but get tv show vibes.
Frequently, overbearing musical sections blare out of the speakers at the audience at moments of high drama or intrigue.
At times, it was jarring, not to mention unnecessary.
To further emphasise this 1980s tv show vibe, the show ends with a slightly cringe trip advisor joke, and I couldn’t help but imagine the cast laughing, and freezing in place as the credits rolled.
It is a highly polished show with wonderful acting and superb design decisions that create an effectively oppressive atmosphere.
It is also frequently humorous. However, its place within a larger Peter James, ‘universe’ means it is prone to exhaustive, lengthy backstory dumps that will bore both the fans and the uninitiated, for different reasons.
Runs from 23rd- 27th May. BSL performance: 24th May. Audio described performance: 26th May. Tickets from £20.