Review – Peter James’ A Perfect Murder, Milton Keynes Theatre, 5th April 2014

Perfect MurderI love a murder mystery – Poirot, Miss Marple, Dalgleish, Morse (to include Lewis and Endeavour, of course) – it’s pure escapism, a challenge to the little grey cells, and, when done with aplomb, can also be scary, or funny, or both. Mrs Chrisparkle is very fond of the books of Peter James; in fact she and Lady Duncansby swap them during coffees and shopping trips. I haven’t discovered them yet, but I am assured that “Not Dead Yet” is a riveting read.

Simona Armstrong and Steven MillerSo I thought it would be a popular choice to see this touring production of Peter James’ A Perfect Murder, his 2010 novella (160 pages long according to Amazon). I thought it might become a springboard for me to start reading his books and spur Mrs C on to reading some more. Well I can’t compare it with his written work (and Mrs C hasn’t read this particular book yet) but her comment after the play was – “if he was hoping to sell a lot of books on the strength of this show he might have to think again”.

Les Dennis and Claire GooseThat sounds quite harsh to me – it’s not that bad a play at all; but I guess if you rate the books really highly and have quite precise and demanding expectations of how his plots might translate onto the stage – as well as how his detective Roy Grace might appear in the flesh (so to speak) – the result is likely to be a disappointment; and that, I think, is what Mrs C experienced. OK, this is no masterpiece, but it’s a lightly amusing, cleverly structured, frothy piece of nonsense with more twists than a plate of fusilli.

Gray O'Brien and Claire GooseIt’s hard to tell you much about the plot without giving the whole game away – and in a murder mystery that’s unforgiveable. Suffice to say, Victor Smiley, a middle-aged IT manager with an ironic surname, is going to seed, with his only enjoyment coming from regular visits to an eastern European hooker. He and his wife are trapped in a loveless, bitter marriage where the only pleasure they get comes from taunting each other. Victor confesses to his prostitute that the only way out of his miserable existence is to bump his (well-insured) wife off, and then he (and the prostitute if she wants) can live happily ever after. He says he has devised the perfect murder – nothing can go wrong. But do such plans ever really succeed? That’s basically all I knew about the story before I saw it, and it’s just enough to whet your appetite without spoiling Scene Two onwards.

Simona Armstrong and Les DennisI did have a couple of problems with the play – firstly the characters are all either slightly or very unlikeable (well maybe not the policeman) so you don’t in any way identify with any of them. There’s a major twist in the story that is so unlikely as to be quite ludicrous, although one does have to concede that I suppose it might, just might, possibly, at a push, conceivably, happen. The plot includes elements of the supernatural, which seemed a bit out of place in the suburban setting of Saltdean – although to be fair the dénouement takes care of them. But there’s one brief moment in Act Two where a character appears at a door, then seems to disappear, and then another character appears a second later at the same door without apparently bumping into the first character at the same time. It’s quite an essential moment to the plot – but I don’t think in real life it could happen. Maybe I think too much.

Claire Goose and Gray O'BrienNevertheless the cast work well together to create these rather bleak relationships and bungled solutions. Les Dennis is perfect as the slightly past-his-best, completely selfish, occasionally mischievous, occasionally devious Victor, a man set in his miserable ways and resentful of everything that goes on around him. He is nicely matched by Claire Goose as his spiteful wife Joan, never missing an opportunity to belittle Victor, and rather good at spooked-out screaming when things go awry. Together they provide a credible insight into this self-centred, unkind marriage; they absolutely deserve each other – if you were married to either one of them they would drive you insane. They have very good support from Gray O’Brien as the “plumber” Don, whose bare chest got a small round of elderly whoops of approval (I don’t know, these matinee pensioners have no idea how to behave at a theatre); Simona Armstrong as psychic hooker Kamila (I enjoyed her when she was “Romanian” Maria in “How do you solve a problem like…” a few years ago) and Steven Miller as a quietly determined D. C. Roy Grace, even though he was absolutely nothing like how Mrs C had envisaged the character. He isn’t actually in the original book, but has been letrasetted-in for the play adaptation, with the intention of showing what the young Grace might have been like in his early days. Maybe, for Grace aficionados, this was a mistake.

Steven MillerWhilst you knew that the storyline as it stood at the end of Act One was never going to be the end result, it was still impossible to predict which way the plot would turn, and I certainly didn’t guess the final outcome until it was actually happening before my eyes. The play went down very well with the audience, and within the limits of a murder mystery written purely for fun and entertainment, it does exactly what it says on the tin. Mrs C was still not overly impressed though – but she did enjoy it more than The Mousetrap.