In twenty-five years’ of theatregoing you tend to forget things. How many Hamlets have I seen? I’ve certainly seen two Hedda Gablers. Or was it a Hedda and a Miss Julie? Whatever happens I can’t imagine ever forgetting this production of Not Dead Enough. In its own way it was one of the most striking plays I’ve seen.
It starts off as a decent, sober-minded police procedural. A woman is brutally murdered and DS Roy Grace (Shane Richie) has to gather evidence and sift through clues aided by his pathologist girlfriend Cleo (Laura Whitmore). He’s also helped by Sgt Glenn Branson (Michael Quartey) who, although a police officer, seems to have been modelled on a Dr Who companion. He certainly gets a lot of stuff explained to him. The main suspect is the deceased’s husband Brian Bishop (Stephen Billington). The first act ended with my notebook bursting with unanswered questions and possible leads. The play skilfully sets up an intriguing mystery which I fully expected to be revealed in the second act.
What I was not expecting was an absurdly camp piece of Grand Guignol which makes a Tod Slaughter melodrama seem like Ken Loach. It takes the hoariest of murder-mystery twists – a twist I thought had been outlawed sometime in the mid ‘40s – and, outrageously, ramps it up by about 50%. Plus it has a villain who, in the midst of his monologuing, half-sings some of the dialogue in true demented nutter style as he reveals – in great detail – his dastardly plan. His motivation for said plan seems to have been borrowed from some long-forgotten Victorian gothic novel.
The villain is so shameless he actually says of his handcuffed victim that ‘she’s a bit tied up at the moment’. It was then I started to look round the auditorium to make sure the audience were seeing what I was seeing. I was beginning to fear it was all a glitch in the matrix. But, reassuringly, others were chuckling along at the sheer ridiculousness of it all.
At this point reviewing tradition dictates I should say something about the acting. But I’m too fixated on the question of whether this was intentionally some kind of comic deconstruction of the genre with a knowing postmodern nod at its most obvious tropes. But if it was then why play the first half straight?
OK, the acting: The cast do a sterling job. Richie is very good at portraying the everyman police officer who has no bizarre quirk and, refreshingly, isn’t a maverick. Whitmore manages to get the right balance between likeable love interest and calm professionalism. The villain is quite remarkable, astounding even, in his lip-smacking villainy.
As a collectors’ item this is worth a visit – it seems doubtful you’ll see anything quite like this at a theatre ever again. Unless, perhaps, you get a time machine.
Continues at the Theatre Royal, Brighton until Saturday 18.