Theatre review: Peter James’ Looking Good Dead

Gaynor Faye, Luke Ward-Wilkinson 'Max Bryce', Leon Stewart 'Branson', Adam Woodyatt 'Tom Bryce' Looking Good Dead

Gaynor Faye 'Kellie Bryce', Luke Ward-Wilkinson 'Max Bryce', Leon Stewart 'Branson' & Adam Woodyatt 'Tom Bryce'. - Credit: Alastair Muir

I have read a number of Peter James’ DS Grace novels, following him and his team as they puzzle out murders and mysteries and catch seriously dastardly criminals, so I had no doubt I would enjoy this stage-adaption of his second book. 

The plot is simple, and perfectly possible – no moments of disbelief or wild coincidences to break the mood. To summarise, Tom Bryce, played by EastEnders and I’m A Celebrity star Adam Woodyatt finds a memory stick left behind on a train seat by a man he found most obnoxious. He decides to bring it him, in the hope of finding out who it belongs to. His 17-year-old son Max helps him open the file on the stick – and they both immediately witness the horrific murder of a young woman, live streamed via the link they found on the USB stick. They decide to keep it to themselves, but Max can’t resist another look, unable to believe it can possibly be real. Their lives quickly start to unravel, with telephone threats and worse, and DS Grace is the only man who can keep them safe and find the culprits.  

Gaynor Faye 'Kellie Bryce' trying to take her phone from an S&M-clad killer

Gaynor Faye 'Kellie Bryce' - Credit: Alastair Muir

The set design supports the action brilliantly, with most of the action taking place in an open plan living-kitchen in the Bryce home, while the snuff-movie horrors and ongoing terror takes place on a raised stage behind the main set, lit cleverly to cast the rest of the stage into darkness, creating the sense of viewing through a screen.  

The storyline is tense, the risk to life and limb very real – but sadly not at one moment did I believe the various characters themselves felt any concern about their future (very possibly looking good dead) at all.  

Adam Woodyatt was great as Ian in EastEnders. He made the easily stressed, quick to judge, temperamental and overly cocky character his own. Sadly, his skills don’t translate to the stage – at least not in this role. Here we have a man, Tom Bryce, whose life is already falling apart around him as he battles to keep his business afloat and his wife’s spending under control, suddenly faced with a live-stream murder – and he barely bats an eyelid. As the story progresses, his tensions surely racket up and up, but he never once seems like a man on the edge.

Tom and Max watch on a laptop while the action plays out on the stage behind them

Adam Woodyatt 'Tom Bryce' and Luke Ward-Wilkinson 'Max Bryce' watch the snuff movie Tom inadvertently brought home - Credit: Alastair Muir

Gaynor Faye, known for her roles in Coronation Street and Emmerdale, seems to suffer the same affliction. There she is, handcuffed and chained up, in front of a camera and being threatened by a man she knows to be a snuff-film killer, and her attitude is somewhat petulant, rather than the sheer terror you could imagine any woman in that position might be feeling. It’s all a bit am-dram. 

The rest of the cast do their jobs well. Grace (Harry Long) is cool under pressure, but doesn't really have the opportunity to show Grace's full personality as we see him on paper, leaving him rather two-dimensional. Max (Luke Ward-Wilkinson) is classically teenage grunt, whinge and know-it-all and Jonas Kent (Ian Houghton) the bluff, arrogant American tycoon we all recognise from a lifetime of TV and film. Throw him into a remake of Dallas and he’d float, without doubt.  

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It's hard to take a good crime novel off the page and onto the stage. In a book the author has time to develop characters, provide back-stories, build tension. It can be done however (if you've ever seen Woman in Black on stage, you'll know) It’s a clever, clever storyline and you will love the ending and how all the threads pull together, but it might be preferable to read the book if it’s true tension you’re seeking, as you won’t find it here.  

Until 22 January: