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Wish You Were Dead

by on 20 April 2023

Trop Tard

Wish You Were Dead

by Peter James, adapted by Shaun McKenna

Joshua Andrews and Peter James at Richmond Theatre until 22nd April, then on tour until 29th July

Review by Mark Aspen

Prior to the Covid lockdowns, we used to spend a couple of weeks each summer exploring the Alps by car, and enjoying the road trip across the countries in between … or sometimes rather enduring the bits on the way.  In the programme for Richmond Theatre’s latest offering, it is clear that our experiences were not unique. The author Peter James tells how one such not-so-enjoyable road trip became the inspiration for the setting of his latest short novel in the Grace series, about the exploits of Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, Wish You Were Dead.

In Shaun McKenna’s exclusive stage adaptation of Wish You Were Dead, it is, I hasten to add, only those experiences of the settings that are recalled, and not the all-too exciting adventures of Roy Grace and his wife, the pathologist Cleo, nee Morley, as their bolthole escape to rural France turns into a nightmarish holiday in hell.  The less than welcoming patronne, the overtired ex-chateau chambre d’hôte, the spurious claims of famous previous guests are all familiar, but thankfully not the attentions of vengeful gang bosses.

The Chateau sur L’ Évêque is a neo-Gothic pile, all foreboding faux Jacobethan oak panelling, translated into designer Michael Holt’s ingeniously compact multi-level set that is appropriately oh-so creepy.  Dark, damp and dismal it rather screams stay away.  But when Roy and Cleo arrive, together with their baby son and their American friend cum nursery nurse Kaitlynn Carter, that is what, in spite of themselves, they do not do.  Tired and hungry from a diverted and rain-swept road from Calais, they need shower, sleep and sustenance.  None of these is forthcoming, or at first anything much at all.  Moreover, Kaitlynn’s finance, who is travelling separately, has not it seems arrived.   

Their on-line booking and the user reviews are not quite as stated: beware TripAdvisor.  Even trying to turn on a light proves somewhat hazardous, resulting in spits and sparks and blown fuses.  Jason Taylor has enormous fun with his lighting design and there’s more to come, while composer-sound designer Max Pappenheim throws in plenty of storm effects.

Everyone is quite edgy and they are really spooked when a suit of armour on the stair-landing falls and its halberd nearly does a nasty mischief to Kaitlynn.  The suspense is compounded by the sudden appearance of the patronne, the fierce, humourless and unwelcoming Madame L’ Évêque, loudly declaring them “trop tard” before reluctantly reverting to broken English.

In true whodunit style, soon we discover that they are totally cut off from the outside world, no telephone, no mobile phone signal, the car broken down and then mysteriously taken away for repair by a helpful but unseen bricoleur.  We are truly in Agatha Christie land here.  Rebecca McKinnis is brilliant in her demi-caricatured Madame L’ Évêque as a wiry shrugging Gallic gorgon, alive with nervous energy.  Was the suit of armour booby-trapped?  Could those tyre-tracks have been from Jack’s car?  Is that really the senile Vicomte L’ Évêque’s walking stick knocking upstairs?   What sounds is Madame L’ Évêque hiding when she plays a recording of Berlioz’s Dies Irae, fortissimo molto troppo?

These questions begin to be answered when the blind and wheelchair-bound Vicomte L’ Évêque (played by the anagrammatically versatile Vince Mallet) appears and warns of danger.  Then Jack’s wallet is discovered by fluffing in the sofa upholstery.    

It is quite a coup de theatre for the design team to triumph with the inventive (pre-) Victorian artistry of a Pepper’s ghost so effectively; when, with shocking abruptness, the audience sees, literally through a wall, an incarcerated Jack Alexander in the attic, bound and gagged.

… And suddenly the atmosphere of the play lurches … … from Cluedo to Psycho.

The second half is permeated with menace as it is revealed that a figurative ogre has taken over the Évêque estate in the form of Esmond gang, whose godfather is Curtis Esmond, who, with sawn-off shotgun in hand, makes the Krays look like kittens.    The award-winning vintage actor Clive Mantle is a towering, and terrifying, presence in this role, commanding the stage and the plot, as Curtis threatens horrific violent retribution for Grace’s key part in securing the conviction of various members of his Brighton-based gang.

The flip of mood is director Jonathan O’Boyle’s muscular interpretation of Peter James skilful writing, taking the formulaic whodunit of the first half to a gut-wrenching nail-biting thriller that has the audience sitting on the edge of their seats.

The tension is leavened by snippets of breakaway humour, mostly delivered by Mantle, and with some punch.  Nevertheless, menace runs through the second half in spite of the wisecracks. 

Brent, Cutis’s son and the crown-prince of the Esmond gang, arrives in what has been planned as the apogee of Curtis’s revenge, as Brent takes over the firm.  He is a cocky chav and is played by new-comer Callum Sheridan-Lee in the style of a young Michael Caine.  The baddies are completed by the transmogrified Tessa Esmond.

Gemma Stroyan plays Kaitlynn with aplomb, as her character develops from a nervous creature to a resourceful asset as the goodies overcome evil.  And the Goodies are complemented by detective Glenn Branson, calm and collected, who has the nous to decipher his boss Grace’s coded messages, played by Leon Stewart, and Alex Stedman as the hapless Jack Alexander.  Both actors are measured and assured in the portrayals, but sadly seem very under-utilised. 

Cleo Grace is played by the actress-novelist Giovanna Fletcher with some insight into the mind of the plucky and loyal wife and into the strengths of motherhood.  (The third member of the family, the baby, is uncredited but always unfazed and always on-cue, skills ahead of his age.)

In the leading role of Roy Grace, George Rainsford has been pulled back to theatre after eight years in BBC One’s Casualty.  He has won many small-screen awards, but is equally at home on the stage.  He plays Grace, the steadfast unflappable man of honour whose gimlet intelligence wins the day, with consummate understated ease and a gentle charm.  It is the sowing of seeds of doubt with the criminals that enables Grace’s brain to beat their brawn, so a bit more heft from Rainsford might have given the character more sleuthing virtuosity.

As it is, who steals the show?  Clive Mantle’s Curtis is probably just pipped at the post by Rebecca McKinnis’ malevolently gleeful Madame L’ Évêque.

Wish You Were Dead delivers a lot in one holiday trip.  The parlour-game predicable whodunit skids around at the interval and the return trip is a sardonic psychodrama, but along the route the sites include tasters of farce, slasher film, murder mystery, gothic horror and soap opera.  It’s quite a journey to the Chateau sur L’ Évêque and back to the Brighton cop-shop. 

As they used to say on all the best postcards, wish you were …

Mark Aspen, April 2023

Photography by Alastair Muir

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