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October 1, 2013 5:12 pm
It is a mark of the success of Scottish crime author Ian Rankin’s first foray into theatre that some of the best scenes in his new play Dark Road would be unlikely to work on the page or screen. There is much in the production that will be familiar to fans of Rankin’s novels and their TV adaptations – not least its flawed heroes, tight plotting and the sharp scene-changes, delivered by a formidable rotating set. But it is when the absent and dead characters that torment the dreams of police chief Isobel McArthur arrive to confront her on stage that the production really comes alive.
McArthur, played with commitment by Maureen Beattie, is the heart of the play. Though proud to have been Scotland’s first female police chief constable, McArthur has been passed over for the bigger job of leading the nation’s newly unified force. And like Rankin’s most famous Edinburgh police creation, the grizzled detective John Rebus, McArthur has a dysfunctional family life and a weakness for strong drink.
Pondering retirement and a possible book, McArthur cannot resist revisiting the case that made her career – and indulging in her doubts about the guilt of the man she helped convict of a series of brutal murders on slim evidence 25 years before.
Despite a shortage of credible alternative suspects – inevitable given a cast list only eight names long – the resulting drama still manages to surprise. As with the best crime novels, this whodunnit is as much a whydunnit and a how-will-it-end. Philip Whitchurch is nicely ambiguous as the convicted Alfred Chalmers. McArthur’s daughter – who acts out her resentments by inviting boyfriends to their shared home for noisy sex – and her cop colleagues offer a satisfying tangle of moral and social complications.
The play, co-authored with Royal Lyceum artistic director Mark Thomson, who also directs, does have its limitations. Some dialogue fails to convince and the rich black humour that enlivens many tense moments also acts as a reminder of the artifice behind a tale that is always working towards its genre-satisfying end.
McArthur, given few opportunities to show what made her a top officer, is a little too vulnerable and reliant on her male colleagues to be a truly satisfying character – a shame, given the relative paucity of female crime-solving lead roles.
But there is no need to dwell on such flaws. This is not deep philosophical drama or social commentary. It is a crime story – and excellent entertainment indeed.
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