United Kingdom Peter James’s Looking Good Dead: Palace Theatre, Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, 14.3.2022. (JPr)
Adaptation – Shaun McKenna
Director – Jonathan O’Boyle
Designer – Michael Holt
Lighting designer – Jason Taylor
Composer and Sound designer – Max Pappenheim
Adam Woodyatt – Tom Bryce
Laurie Brett – Kellie Bryce
Natalie Boakye – Janie
Ian Houghton – Jonas Kent
Harry Long – Roy Grace
Mylo McDonald – Mick
Leon Stewart – Glenn Branson
Gemma Stroyan – Bella Moy
Luke Ward-Wilkinson – Max Bryce
Let the author Peter James himself introduce his own story: ‘In Looking Good Dead, Tom Bryce is a businessman struggling to save his business and having to cope with a near-alcoholic wife [Kellie] who can’t stop spending. Commuting home on the train one evening, he is driven nuts by a loud-mouthed man seated next to him, who is shouting into his phone at the top of his voice, things like, ”I’M ON THE TRAIN!” The kind of annoying person we’ve all experienced at some time… To Tom’s relief, when the train stops at Preston Park, one station short of his destination, Brighton, Loudmouth gets off. But then Tom sees a USB memory stick lying on the vacated seat, which he realises must have fallen out of the man’s pocket.’
Peter James may have written lots of bestsellers and had four previously adapted for the stage by Shaun McKenna, but I have to admit before seeing Looking Good Dead I knew nothing of the author nor of these adaptations. James’s detective who features in a number of his novels – and also in this play – is DS Roy Grace and whilst I was watching all the twists and turns of Looking Good Dead the character did seem vaguely familiar. Looking him up later I saw that last year I had watched the ITV version of Dead Simple – the first book in James’s series about the Brighton-based Detective Superintendent – that they simply called Grace and starred John Simm in the leading role. I understand there will more episodes to be shown soon including Looking Good Dead (the second book of many).
I suspect if you know too much about Grace from the books – and particularly if you have read Looking Good Dead – you might find this two-hour truncation a little underwhelming. Classic crime thriller it may be but in the book James gets more time than McKenna to develop characters and scatter clues like a trail of breadcrumbs through its hundreds of pages. Here there is a flurry of rat-a-tat short scenes for the several characters with a lot of exposition and, truthfully, if you switch off at any moment you might miss something crucial. Also if anybody is introduced into the story at a crucial moment in the play it is likely to be more than significant, especially when a vital piece of evidence also then goes missing which may – of course also may not – be a coincidence.
I am attempting to avoid any spoilers though I must admit I had great fun working out what was going on. Looking Good Dead is certainly not some of the greatest theatre you will see – and the plot notwithstanding – it had more than a hint, so I understand, of what ‘weekly rep’ of last century might have been like. On returning home, Tom who is practically bankrupt asks his son Max – shown as a typically disgruntled teenager – to help him see what is on the USB. There is a suggestion that he is looking for something so he can get it back to the person who mislaid it, but we already get the idea Tom is trying to find something he can take advantage of. Max’s older half-brother Joe is communicating from Venezuela where is his on a gap year, but the younger brother proves a whiz at cracking encrypted passwords. Tom and Max find themselves watching a snuff movie streaming live hosted by a hooded man called Mick (Mylo McDonald with an appalling Irish accent for which there is an explanation at the end of the play).
With a scam phone call the criminals discover who has been watching when they shouldn’t have been and Tom is warned not to involve the police, though they soon will be of course. Joe tells Max to stay out of it and to let the police deal with everything, he also reveals he will come into money soon and help Max escape from his suffocating homelife with Tom and Kellie. The police already have on their hands the murder of an escort (Janie, whose killing we have seen), as well as that of a paedophile to deal with. American Jonas Kent (Ian Houghton) throws Tom a lifeline with a wonderful job for him that should save his bespoke operation from going under and involves gold Rolexes and lots of money. Into this mix come Scarab – aka dung – beetles and the tension ramps up when Kellie is kidnapped and the race is on to find her before a new snuff film goes online.
Michael Holt’s set design allows most of the action to take place in the open plan living room-kitchen of the Bryces’s home; whilst enabling there to be a desk at the front for short scenes with Grace and the other two detectives; and with the help of some inspired backlighting (from Jason Taylor) we see a S&M dungeon for the murder and other moments of threat to happen on a raised platform behind the main set. The latter is very cleverly done to suggest we are viewing things on a screen like the characters sometimes do.
Other than panto, Adam Woodyatt – a stalwart of EastEnders for 36 years – seems to have done little ‘proper’ theatre and he brings to Tom many of the cheeky chappy and quick-to-anger qualities we have seen from Woodyatt in the past, and he is no more or less believable than any of the other characters in Looking Good Dead. Tom genuinely does seem as if he wants to do everything initially to save his business and a disintegrating marriage. Ultimately, why he does not totally fall apart when it looks as if his wife – unless he can come up with a huge ransom – will be the next victim of the criminals requires you to see the play or, I guess, read the original book.
Laurie Brett impresses as the highly-strung, OCD cleaning, secret vodka-drinking, compulsively spending Kellie who will prove stronger and more resilient than she initially looks. She is convincing during her angry exchanges with Woodyatt, and these tell of their years together on EastEnders when Brett played his wife Jane.
Luke Ward-Wilkinson is good as the truculent teen Max with his penchant for noise-cancelling headphones to help him avoid becoming embroiled in his parents’ rows. Tom is rather feckless and self-absorbed to begin with, yet he plays a crucial part as the plot reaches its conclusion.
Certainly Harry Long’s Grace doesn’t carry any of the emotional baggage that is there in the books, I believe. I wanted Long to be more charismatic, yet he makes Grace a calm and assured presence at heart of the action; though oddly, he isn’t really central in bringing it all to a conclusion. He engages in a lot of entertaining banter – and several corny jokes – with his fellow detectives DI Glenn Branson (Leon Stewart) and DC Bella Moy (Gemma Stroyan) who don’t have that much to do with the plot either apart from a few crucial discoveries to move things along.
For many in the audience the ending of Looking Good Dead may not come as a shock – those will be Peter James’s loyal readers – but since I’m not one of them there was a genuinely surprising twist that even I didn’t see coming, though I had worked out much of what was going on along the way. So that is enough for me to highly recommend Looking Good Dead as something to see at your local theatre if it is still on its way to you.