The Royal Lyceum Theatre
Exhibiting his script writing skills for the first time, Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin, best known for his Inspector Rebus novels, launches the Lyceum Theatre’s Autumn season with gripping psychological thriller Dark Road. Inspired by director Mark Thomson’s initial pitch “Why do we never see detective stories on the stage?”, Rankin ensures the “detective story” plays out far more thrillingly on stage than what we so often see in books and on television – and his transition from novel to stage writing only strengthens his flair for suspense.
Maureen Beattie plays Scotland’s first female Chief Superintendent Isobel McArthur, a powerful protagonist who struggles to balance her commitment to her demanding career with her equally demanding daughter Alex. What at first seems a supportive and inspiring relationship rapidly becomes a ruthless career race when both mother and daughter find themselves fighting for the chance to profit from psychotic and infamous murderer Alfred Chalmers who, though jailed for twenty-five years, is believed to be innocent by both women. However, the digging up of the long buried trial of his supposedly murdering four young girls infects the McArthur household like a virus, pushing Alex to run away and Isobel to self-destruction.
Beattie simply cannot be faulted as the lead, simultaneously portraying strong career woman, a pushover of a mother and nervous wreck. Philip Whitchurch’s portrayal of Chalmers is chillingly unhinged, with dialogue always perfectly located between a desperate plea and a snarling warning; it is impossible to take your eyes off of him on stage, almost in fear. Sara Vickers’ depiction of eighteen year old Alex seems confused between focused student and sex-obsessed train wreck – the latter being the less believable and, whilst declaring her love for sex so impudently to her mother provokes much laughter, these outbursts sometimes seem out of character. However, her character brings a lightness and also makes the play more appealing to younger audience members. Likewise, Isobel’s co-worker and old flame Frank Bowman (played by Robert Gwilym) causes hysterics with witty one liners and engages us with how he challenges Isobel.
Aesthetically, the set is comparable to the West End, with the play being set in only three rooms the designers have been able to toy with the rotating stage effect. This allows the stage to be split at various points but most prominently in the final scene – a simple but striking split scene featuring both mother and daughter on the receiving end of life-endangering threats. Even between scene changes, we are constantly kept on the edge of our seats with eerie background music and explicit newspaper clippings of Chalmers’ victims projected onto the stage. Much suspense, laughter and jaw-dropping shock make Dark Road the perfect night at the theatre, but despite all of this, nothing can prepare the audience for the finale’s shocking twist – one of the many reasons for the four rounds of gracious bows taken at the end.
The Student, Edinburgh, 2013