The dark comedy thriller is at Curve until Saturday, July 22.
How do you do a country house mystery in the 21st century? Novelist Peter James has found the solution with this gripping thriller set in the South of France, and featuring Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. Adapted for the stage by Shaun McKenna and directed by Jonathan O'Boyle, Wish You Were Dead is a good way to branch out for anyone who's exhausted their Agatha Christie collection.
That said, it's definitely not a murder mystery, but there's enough sense of danger and isolation to have that effect. Plus, there's a detective at the centre of it. What's not to like?
I was unfamiliar with Peter James' work as I entered the theatre, but knew this was not the first Roy Grace case. I must say, there's one point in the first half where I wondered whether I ought to have seen/read earlier instalments, but rest assured, everything you need to know is explained eventually, so it's accessible to the uninitiated.
As I alluded to, the problem with most modern thrillers is technology - a mobile phone has the potential to be a deus ex machina in any narrative, immediately solving the problem by calling for help. Here, within the first 20 minutes of the play, it's established that there's no wi-fi, no phone signal, the electricity is unreliable, and the car won't start. Our characters are isolated, so tension can thrive.
The story features DSI Roy Grace (George Rainsford) and his pathologist wife, Cleo (Katie McGlynn), on holiday in the south of France with their baby and his nanny, Kaitlynn (Gemma Stroyan) and her partner Jack (Alex Steadman), who is yet to arrive. They are greeted by the chateau's housekeeper, a curiously stand-offish Madame L'Eveque, who gives the impression that this holiday will not be what the Graces expected.
The "fancy Airbnb" chateau that they're staying in is not what they expect. It's depicted through a spectacular set that makes use of different levels to indicate different rooms. Jason Taylor's lighting is also used to great effect for one key reveal, and even for the arrival of the Graces' car at the beginning, which is cleverly done.
This is the first production I've seen at Curve (in the main auditorium) for a long time where the actors are not using microphones. Their projection is impressive (though it does feel like McGlynn is having to shout slightly more than her voice is comfortable with), and not drowned out by music or sound effects. The baby is very obviously a doll, but of course it is. And when one character fires a gun into the ceiling, there's a beat before the rubble falls, nearly hitting the actor on the head, and drawing laughs from the audience - first night teething issues, I'm sure.
Rainsford makes for a charismatic lead - while Roy is always on the backfoot throughout the play, his intelligence and calmness-under-pressure shine through as revelations come to light.
McGlynn is also highly engaging, and gives a modern interpretation of the policeman's wife - as a pathologist herself, she's never presented as being out of her depth, and there's not a hint of "damsel in distress". Brave, curious, and even fierce at times, McGlynn's performance compliments Rainsford's, and makes them a believable couple.
Nanny Kaitlynn gives the couple someone to talk to other than each other, and her involvement does a lot to drive the plot forward. Stroyan makes the character very easy to invest in, giving greater emotional resonance to moments where Kaitlynn is in dire straits.
Without wishing to diverge spoilers, the rest of the cast play their parts very well - especially Rebecca McKinnis, whose performance will make you both love and hate her at different moments. Clive Mantle adds huge value to this production, though is slightly over reliant on laughing between lines for my personal taste, as it felt like it diminished his menace.
O'Boyle's direction allows the action to flow, only breaking it up with a few key blackouts to indicate time passing. Otherwise, his use of the set allows for dramatic irony, as the audience see things happen before the characters do, building the tension and provoking gasps. The deep breath before the plunge!
The ending is elegantly tied up - though I must say, I'm surprised no-one is killed off by a falling Halberd, as that seed appeared to have been neatly planted in the first half. Overall, it's a gripping two hours from a very slick production. There's (contemporary) life in the mystery/thriller genre yet!