Review: Not Dead Enough at the Orchard Theatre

Guest review by Mandy Southgate

Prolific author Peter James requires no introduction to the stage. Adaptations of his books The Perfect Murder and Dead Simple were sell-out successes in the West End and toured around the UK. Not Dead Enough is the latest of his books to become a play and we are promised an evening of thrilling suspense and mystery.

Three murders. One suspect. No proof.

Detective Superintendent Roy Grace returns with a crime that will test him to the limits. On the night his wife is murdered, Brian Bishop claims to be sixty miles away, asleep in his bed. No matter how much DS Grace likes him for the crime, he simply can’t pin it on Bishop. Meanwhile, DS Grace is still dealing with the disappearance of his own wife. Could the two cases be related?

Directed by Olivier Award-winner Ian Talbot and starring Shane Richie as DS Roy Grace, Not Dead Enough begins its national tour at the Orchard Theatre in Dartford before moving to Milton Keynes and Woking.

Not Dead Enough is a lot of fun. It is quick-paced, full of suspense and the audience has to pay careful attention in order to sort through the plethora of clues and red herrings. If it is any indication, by the final minutes of the first half, I was balancing precariously on the edge of my seat, eyes fixed firmly on the stage. Just remember that you can’t always believe what your own eyes are telling you and sometimes it is a case of not looking closely enough.

Despite the serious subject matter, Not Dead Enough is very funny, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. Then again, with the harrowing crimes being committed on stage, it may just be that the audience’s mirth was more nervous laughter than anything else. 

Not Dead Enough is small, with just nine people (ten if you include a dead body). Shane Richie is joined on stage by Michael Quartey as DS Glenn Branson. Where DS Grace is focused and often desperate, DS Branson is irreverent and daring. Laura Whitmore plays Cleo Morey, the chief mortician and love interest to DS Grace.

Stephen Billington, best known for playing the dastardly Greg Kelly in Coronation Street, plays Brian Bishop. It is only after the big reveal at the end of the play that you realise just how good his performance was and how he had been giving the audience very subtle clues as to the real story the whole time.

One of the most interesting aspects of any stage production is the set design and use of space. The stage design for Not Dead Enough was simple and static, dividing the stage into the mortuary, office, interview room and street. This clever design allowed the story to switch seamlessly between scenes, allowing a pace and dynamic more often seen in television productions than stage. It was very impressive.

I enjoyed Not Dead Enough and look forward to future plays in the Peter James DS Roy Grace franchise.

Not Dead Enough is running at the Orchard Theatre in Dartford until Saturday 28 January 2017. Visit Peter James’s website for details on future dates.

Review: Dick Whittington at the Orchard Theatre

It’s Christmas time… and in the land of theatre, that means only one thing: panto season!

Dartford’s pantomime for this year is Dick Whittington, starring Eastenders favourite Shane Richie. On my way to The Orchard to watch the show, I realised I didn’t actually know this particular story… and I can’t honestly say I know it that well now either. But that’s not really the point of panto, as we all know. So here’s the gist – Dick Whittington and his cat save London from giant rats. Hurrah!

Now, let’s be honest. We all know what to expect from a pantomime. It’s a bizarre and extremely British tradition that’s pretty much impossible to explain to anyone who’s never experienced it (believe me, I have tried). But the good news is, once you’ve seen one panto, you’ve basically seen them all. You know there’ll be a TV star playing the hero; a man dressed in drag; a baddie who everyone boos at; lots of singing and dancing; a bit where all the main characters get scared off, one by one, by some kind of monster… It’s a time-honoured formula, and as long as we all keep laughing and shouting the right responses, why would anyone mess with it?

Malcolm Lord
Photo credit: Craig Sugden

Dick Whittington has all of the above in buckets (and yes, at one point there are actual buckets), but it also brings a few fresh ideas to the stage. The appearance of a giant kraken is impressive and unexpected – and it’s great fun to see how the children in the audience respond to it; two little boys in front of us clearly thought giving a huge sea monster the thumbs down was the right way to go. And I genuinely enjoyed the 3D section in the second half – which is saying something, because 3D doesn’t usually do it for me at all – even if it did mean the already astonishing noise levels went up yet another notch.

Whether you’re an Eastenders fan or not, Shane Richie’s a fantastic lead, who absolutely makes the show. He’s also a natural comedian; it’s often hard to tell which bits of the chaos are scripted and which are just him making it up on the spot. He’s joined by Pete Gallagher as the evil King Rat, and Malcolm Lord, who goes through countless outrageous costumes – sometimes several at the same time – as this year’s dame. (For those of us old enough to remember, Malcolm Lord played George the pink hippo in Rainbow. I used to love that show.) Illusionist Phil Hitchcock keeps the audience entertained with some jaw-dropping tricks, and Aaron Romano makes a late but very welcome appearance as a scantily clad Sultan Vinegar.

Shane Richie
Photo credit: Craig Sugden

The humour, as usual, is very much two-level; there’s plenty of slapstick and silliness for the kids, but also more than enough to keep the grownups entertained. The local gags are fun, but could be more varied; after the fourth joke about Temple Hill, it’s starting to get a bit old for anyone who doesn’t live there. And though the show often sails dangerously close to the wind – which, let’s face it, was inevitable in a story where the main character’s called Dick – it always manages to just about toe the line of what’s appropriate.

There are a couple of bits that could be slightly scary for younger audience members, although having said that, none of them seemed particularly phased, and the baby directly in front of us was totally chilled out throughout the show – so maybe I’m just being a wuss.

Pete Gallagher
Photo credit: Craig Sugden

I’ve been to my fair share of pantomimes over the years, and I have to say Dick Whittington is one of the best. The cast all look like they’re having a great time, and it’s a genuinely enjoyable show, with plenty of fun surprises. Of course it’s also totally predictable and a complete cheese-fest… but then that’s why we love panto. Right?

Dick Whittington is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford, until Sunday 3rd January.