Before I start, a quick health warning: this may not be the play for you if you have a fear of small spaces. Or blood. Or clowns. Or… Oh. I think that’s everything. Moving on…
Michael Harrison thinks his life is perfect. He’s got a successful business, millions in the bank and a beautiful fiancée. But it turns out he’s also really bad at choosing his friends – and after a stag night prank goes disastrously wrong, Michael finds himself buried alive, with no immediate hope of rescue.
It’s the stuff of nightmares – and also the plot of Dead Simple, a novel by Peter James adapted for the stage and currently on tour around the UK. Former Hollyoaks actor Jamie Lomas stars as Michael, with Tina Hobley as his beautiful wife-to-be, Ashley, and Rik Makarem as his best friend and business partner, Mark. Meanwhile Gray O’Brien plays DS Roy Grace, the detective charged with finding Michael before it’s too late.
Dead Simple is a carefully crafted thriller, full of twists and keeping the audience guessing at every turn. The play hits the perfect note for a wuss like me – chilling without being terrifying, and messing with your head rather than making you jump out of your skin.
It’s a brave move to try and condense such a complex story into two hours; act one does a great job of establishing the characters and plot, ending with a twist that will have you scratching your head and arguing about what just happened throughout the interval. This leaves the second act with a lot of work to do, and it has to move at breakneck speed to unravel the complicated story before the curtain falls. And so, unsurprisingly, there are a few gaps, not least in the character and back story of Roy Grace – but then, as Peter James’ novel is the first in a series featuring Grace, that was probably to be expected.
What the play lacks in realism and detail, though, it more than makes up for in entertainment and intrigue. In this regard it’s very much like a classic Agatha Christie, which you never for one moment believe could actually happen, but you have a great time watching it all the same. The scenes with Michael in the coffin are particularly well done; Jamie Lomas sounds genuinely petrified. And who knows, maybe he is – it can’t be much fun in there.
Another challenge of staging such a complex story is all the locations it has to cover, but Michael Taylor’s multi-level set is more than up to the task, encompassing Michael’s living room, the forest where he’s buried, an underground dungeon and the road outside. We can even see into the coffin – whether we want to or not. Any gaps are filled by the special effects; the car crash scene is a particularly unnerving example of how the play works on your imagination.
The cast are clearly enjoying themselves with the intricate plot, and anticipating the audience’s reaction to each twist (I genuinely squeaked a couple of times; it’s hard not to). Lomas is a charismatic lead, even from inside a coffin, in contrast to Rik Makarem’s Mark, who may be physically free but is weakened by his own indecision. Meanwhile former Grange Hill actor Josh Brown makes an impressive theatrical debut as Davey, a young man obsessed with American crime shows, who inadvertently finds himself starring in one.
This play is anything but Dead Simple – but a convoluted plot is saved by clever staging and a strong cast. It may not be great literature, but it’s good fun, and isn’t that what the theatre’s supposed to be about?
Dead Simple is at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury until Saturday 11th July, before concluding its UK tour in Worthing next week.