Writer: Peter James
Adaptation: Shaun McKenna
Director: Jonathan O’Boyle
How often does a kind deed for a stranger bite you in the ass? Most of us would ignore a lone USB stick left behind on the train, but Tom Bryce has a knack for attracting trouble, it appears. No good deed goes unpunished, and after plugging in the pen-drive to source the owner, Tom invites a depraved and sadistic force into his life after witnessing a live snuff film, Scarab Productions, who take pride in their live slaughter, ensuring their victims are Looking Good Dead.
As the grim October nights ripple across Edinburgh, the King’s Theatre is unquestionably the perfect venue for a ghoulish and macabre tale, and thankfully they have plenty others in store. Peter James’ latest novel, adapted for the stage by Shaun McKenna, strides out with a sleek presence and engaging concept, but steadily as the evening goes on, disconnects with audiences, with its cast, and with its structure.
The Bryce family have a taste for the finer things, and each has their fair share of secrets; wife Kellie struggles with a drinking problem, her son Max out of touch with reality, stealing his mother’s card details. The premise is formulaic, almost blasé in its idiosyncratic pandering to thriller tropes and the plight of a downtrodden middle-class family. Adam Woodyatt and Gaynor Faye, bless them, are giving it their best half-hearted attempts, but the entire cast needs to dial up their efforts a good measure or so. The chemistry is lukewarm between the pair, and though the struggles and animosity are present, James’ has failed to develop characters with any sense of warmth, interest or likeability.
Principally, while James’ script layers itself thick with antics and perplexing choices, Jonathan O’Boyle’s direction strikes at the heart of the issues and causes catastrophic abnormalities in pacing and character direction. There is absolutely no sense of urgency, rather vital for a thriller, no? No dread, nor any environment of foreboding as Kellie is kidnapped. And though the unique twists should offer an elevation of panic, the happenstance of their cause is so detached from character choices and reality it crosses into disbelief.
Save for the tiniest graces that lift the narrative from the freshly dug earth Looking Good Dead is as subtle as a train wreck on a boat. Almost comical, all that’s missing is a nudging elbow with a nauseating wink – a depraved waste of a marvellous concept. A divided stage, between the lavishness of the Bryce’s privileged lifestyle, with the cramped Police office and the striking bare beams and chains of Scarab Productions murder room, Michael Holt’s design is the production’s highlight and saving feature.
And Beats hopefully sponsor this production, for the most contrite piece of plot armour in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones which render the user deaf to even the most forced of screams. A level of disbelief is prevalent with a contemporary thriller – particular with the productions centring around hacking and technobabble, but authenticity is vacant throughout. Particularly for the police force, Gemma Stroyan salvaging what best she can from the scraps left behind, imbuing an interest from the audience, even if only momentarily.
Even with a suspension of disbelief and a measure of suspending reality, Looking Good Dead squanders a tangible contemporary tale on the dangers of digital blackmail, exploitation and misogynistic media. It strays away from focusing on solid characterisation and direction to instead shove in peculiar jokes, perplexing side-narratives, and while pulling the wool over the audience for one twist, begins to unravel its secrets all too early. James’ newest tale is looking good thanks to Holt’s design, but the writing and direction are long deceased.
Looking Good Dead continues on tour | Image: Contributed