Live theatre is well and truly back at the New Theatre Cardiff, as is the return of the ubiquitous mystery thriller. An Inspector Calls was one of the last shows to play here before lockdown, and it’s fitting that Looking Good Dead, a crime thriller by bestselling novelist Peter James, is one of its first since reopening.
The opening scene is easily its most dramatic. An escort is lured to an abandoned warehouse; once there, she is killed by a pair of masked men who broadcast the whole thing live on the internet (imagine if the torturers in Funny Games were Twitch streamers and you’ve got the general idea). The next day, Tom Bryce (Adam Woodyatt, of the EastEnders hall of fame) finds a USB on the train home and, with the help of his apathetic but computer-savvy son Max (Luke Ward-Wilkinson), accesses its contents. When they succeed, they open a link to footage of the escort’s murder and are plunged into danger from which it seems only Detective Superintendent Roy Grace (Harry Long) can save them.
Directed by Jonathan O’Boyle and adapted by the award-winning Shaun McKenna, Looking Good Dead is based on the second book in James’ Roy Grace series, the DS recently played by John Simm on ITV. Roy Grace is just about as typical a copper as they come, with a hair-trigger gut instinct and a tragic backstory (your common garden ‘haunted by the disappearance/death/divorce of his wife’ schtick, as ascribed to most fictional gumshoes). Grace may have the gut, but the show doesn’t have the guts to give him a proper hook – a novelty, or a tragedy – for us to cling on to. While Simm’s DS was haunted by the inability to solve his wife’s disappearance, Long’s is celebrating his recent engagement – not exactly meaty material. Don’t get me wrong, a good detective doesn’t have to be tormented to be compelling (and Long is likable and believable in the role), but they do need to give you a reason to join them on the trail – and a great detective is one who is as much a mystery as the cases they solve.
It’s notoriously tricky to pull off suspense in the theatre, and while Looking Good Dead never quite excels at chilling the blood, its central mystery is intriguing and there are twists and turns a-plenty right through to the final seconds. There’s a reason James is the bestselling crime novelist in the UK, after all, as Looking Good Dead is the fifth of his novels to make it to the stage with critical acclaim, following the likes of The Perfect Murder and Dead Simple. And the cast are a huge part of what makes it enjoyable. Adam Woodyatt, known to many as Ian Beale, invests the audience in the story from the second he steps onto the stage. Woodyatt’s award-winning tenure as EastEnders’ longest serving cast member has meant that he hasn’t trodden the boards since 1982, but he’s so natural in and committed to the role, it feels as though he’s never been away.
Co-starring Gaynor Faye (most recently of The Syndicate) as his glamorous and slightly chaotic wife Kellie and Ian Houghton as slimy American entrepreneur Jonas Kent, the show succeeds largely on the charm of its cast, which also includes Leon Stewart as DS Glenn Branson, Gemma Stroyan as DS Bella Moy, and Natalie Boakye as the ill-fated Janie. Easily the most impressive performance is that of Mylo McDonald, making his professional stage debut. His scenes are brimming with tension, underscored by the innovative stage design, lighting and sound by Michael Holt, Jason Taylor and Max Pappenheim respectively (not to mention an effective costume by Chrissy Maddison). The stage, primarily a sparsely stylish middle-class home interior, is frequently backlit to reveal a hidden set that looks like something out of Saw – and every time that part illuminates and McDonald skulks back in, it’s like entering another world. He not only ably holds his own alongside stars Woodyatt and Faye but steals the whole show – and I’m excited to see where his career goes next.
At times comedic, at others sadistic, the world premiere of Looking Good Dead is an enjoyable mystery for fans of Luther and Line of Duty. If you like your cases cold and your pursuits hot, Looking Good Dead is the mystery you won’t want to miss.
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