ROYAL LYCEUM, EDINBURGH
The première of Dark Road, the debut play by famous crime fiction writer Ian Rankin, arrived amidst excited anticipation. Not only because the author of the Rebus novels was turning his hand to another art form, but also because the lead character, Chief Superintendent Isobel McArthur, is being played by another Scottish national treasure, the ever excellent Maureen Beattie.
It should be said that the play (which is co-produced by the Lyceum and the Wales Millennium Centre, who will tour it next year) is not the work of Rankin alone. It was co-authored with the Lyceum’s artistic director Mark Thomson, who is, for better (A Madman Sings to the Moon) and worse (Wondrous Flitting), also a playwright.
The piece finds McArthur, Scotland’s first female police chief, considering retiring from the force to write her autobiography. She is haunted by the defining case of her career; the conviction 25 years ago of a hospital orderly, Alfred Chalmers, for the gruesome murders of four young women who had undergone terminations of pregnancy.
Uncertain of Chalmers’ guilt, established on the basis of now dubious 1980s forensics, the policewoman throws procedure to the winds in an unofficial effort to ensure, if not justice for the dead girls and Chalmers, then, at least, a sense of finality for herself. Add to this McArthur’s strained relations with her resentful 18-year-old daughter Alexandra and a complex personal history with hard drinking DCI Frank Bowman, and one has more than a basis for another Rankin novel.
The inevitable, if somewhat obvious, question hanging over Dark Road is whether Rankin, even with the assistance of Thomson, can transform the dramatic into the truly theatrical. The unambiguous evidence of this production, which is also directed by Thomson, is that he cannot.
The play is so overwrought, cluttered and structurally shambolic that one fears Francis O’Connor’s revolving set is going to grind to halt. The numerous shifts between reality and imagination might be rendered believable in a psychological novel, but they quickly descend into absurdity on-stage.
Most surprising, perhaps, is the growing sense of implausibility as the stupid decisions of clever people turn the piece into an increasingly histrionic melodrama. Not even the best efforts of Beattie and a fine supporting cast can save this criminally misjudged experiment from itself.
At the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh until October 19. For further information, visit: lyceum.org.uk
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on October 1, 2013:
© Mark Brown