Review: Dead Simple (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, February 28)

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A stag night prank that goes horribly wrong is only the starting point for a five-star production of Dead Simple, which contains enough twists, turns and shocks to make a Scandinavian TV drama jealous.

Author Peter James (who is also one of the producers) has every reason to be delighted by the stage adaptation of his first Roy Grace detective story – a crime thriller that surely ranks alongside such classics as Sleuth, Dial M for Murder and Deathtrap.

The national tour has reached Brighton at last and not before time – the series of books are set in the city, which the author lovingly turns into the perfect backdrop for dastardly deeds.

Shaun McKenna’s adaptation and Ian Talbot’s direction are exquisite: giving an edge-of-the-seat thriller for the Peter James Not-We audience members, and a gripping version of the superb novel for fans, with some nice little changes to surprise and please.

There is hardly a foot put wrong in this splendid pacy production from the great cast to some clever set design by Michael Taylor, lighting by Mark Howett, and sound by Martin Hodgeson. It’s difficult to say too much without giving away the intricate plot, but there’s plenty to make the audience jump, gasp, and laugh.

Jamie Lomas as Michael makes the very best of a role which requires him to spend much of the time sealed in a coffin, the victim of the practical joke that turns sour, while Tina Hobley proves real ability as his fiancée Ashley, who is glamorous, has hidden strength of character, and legs of which Betty Grable would be proud.

Rik Makarem is always good to watch, but as property developer Mark Warren he is outstanding, conveying all the character’s strengths and weaknesses, while Josh Brown, who has performed memorably on TV but for whom this is his professional theatre debut, is remarkable as the simple-minded but likeable Davey, who acts out his role as though appearing in an American cop show. Michael McKell is also extremely pleasing as uncle Bradley, who is a lot more than he initially seems.

Uber-fans of the novels might be a little disappointed by the depiction of Roy Grace, but it was never going to be possible to portray fully the depth of character and personality traits as seen on the books’ pages. As it is Gray O’Brien is good casting and is a pretty amazing Grace, well-matched by Marc Small as DS Glenn Branson. The pair work well together and make a lot of the limitations this stage production necessarily puts on them, with solid detective work laced with neat touches of humour.

Little wonder that in Brighton the show is almost sold-out for its week-long run. It’s the sort of classy production that not too many years ago would have been a dead cert for a London transfer, and is quite simply one of the best crime thrillers I’ve seen on stage. Although it will needlessly increase the crime rate, you need to kill for a ticket!