If there’s only one thing that the shoddy and mundane adaptation of Peter James’ Looking Good Dead – starring EastEnders‘ Adam Woodyatt and Emmerdale‘s Gaynor Faye – does right, then it’s making a story about a family caught up in the dark web look like a slapstick comedy. In any other scenario, it would be a damning indictment of an audience member’s morality, but on its final night at Bath’s Theatre Royal, it’s a shameful blot on Shaun McKenna as a writer.
Woodyatt is Tom Bryce, a family man with an affinity for finger guns who decides to keep hold of a USB stick left on the passenger seat of a train and bring it home to his bland Brighton apartment (a dull design from Micheal Holt) and his family who also inhabit it. There’s wife Kellie with a drinking problem, on-the-nose responses to confrontation and a delivery worse than Hermes (Faye); and the cliché teenage son Max (Luke Ward-Wilkinson) with such a strong disinterest in anything other than himself that he forgets his Dad can’t hear him when he’s borrowed the youngster’s noise-cancelling headphones – a fact repeated several times during the first act that to call it foreshadowing would be putting it far too politely.
When the family arguments feel fake, there’s little reason to care about the trio and their financial difficulties. When a team of police officers (led by James regular, Detective Superintendent Roy Grace) crack corny jokes, like comparing dung to IKEA meatballs, any hope that these are a serious group of detectives is decimated. This is death by dialogue, a slow-moving plot nudged along by several useful phone calls. It’s devoid of any colour and obliterates any credibility, to the extent that some audience members were laughing by the play’s conclusion. Kellie’s reaction to being chloroformed was over the top, Max’s namedropping of the latest pop culture trends such as Bitcoin and World of Warcraft only betrays the age of the writer, and the resolution of the whodunnit looked like a cartoon episode of Scooby Doo, ending with a line not too dissimilar to “I would’ve gotten away with it if it weren’t for you meddling kids.”
Unfortunately, as is likely the case with any crime story which makes its way to the stage, any character introduced to the audience is likely to have a significant part to play in the rest of the show. So, when American investor Jonas Kent (Ian Houghton) offers Bryce a solution to his cash flow problems, the convenience of it all is so obvious and stark – like a lot of this production – that the idea that he isn’t involved in the criminal deeds is extremely hard to believe.
“Hard to believe” being the perfect three words to describe an utter failure of direction and authorship from Jonathon O’Boyle and Shaun McKenna respectively. The set is unenthusiastic; the police investigation cringeworthy and clumsy; and family tensions forced and uninteresting. If you think a sinister murder can’t possibly be told as something humorous, then it may just be the best comedy you’ll ever see. Otherwise, you’ll likely be left incredulous at how such a dire production could have made it to the stage, with the far worser crime being that it’s roughly 135 minutes which you’ll never get back.
Looking Good Dead will run from 25-30 October at Norwich Theatre Royal before beginning a 2022 tour. More information can be found on Peter James’ official website.
Production Images: Alastair Muir.