REVIEW: The Perfect Murder (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, February 1)

Bored in your marriage? Then forget about counselling or divorce – the obvious answer is murder, according to a new touring play based on a short story by one of the best crime writers around.

Tuesday, 28th January 2014, 7:54 am

The Perfect Murder is based on a novella in the “Quick Reads” series by Brighton’s own Peter James and, in this adaptation by Shaun McKenna, there are some neat little twists to confound those already familiar with the story – though the ending is possibly less satisfactory than in the book.

Set in Brighton, the story is of a bickering couple, far from happily married after 20 years, both seeking satisfaction elsewhere. Both separately inspired by crime novels and TV series, classic and contemporary, they devise what they hope will be perfect ways of despatching the other and getting away with murder to start a new life.

The production strongly resembles the sort of light comedy thrillers which so often used to tour the provinces in the 1970s – engaging but not especially demanding. There’s nothing wrong with this genre, and director Ian Talbot and the cast need the confidence to be comfortable in presenting it thus.

Les Dennis and Claire Goose are the couple with minds to murder, and both characters are as unlikeable on the stage as they are on the page. Les Dennis is a strong actor, increasingly unafraid to tackle a variety of meaty roles well in the theatre, and here he plays Victor Smiley, a middle-aged IT nobody irritated by just about everything his wife Joan says, does and thinks. He might be overplaying things rather in the first half, and could do with finding the subtlety in the character which he captures well later on a bit earlier.

Gray O’Brien is a lot of fun as Joan’s hunky handyman love interest Don, with a fine collection of Cockney rhyming slang, despite hailing from just outside Tunbridge Wells, while Simona Armstrong is very good indeed as the tart with a heart, with whom Victor dreams of running away, and who has a proven record in psychic prowess.

Peter James fans will be most interested to see the introduction in the play of Roy Grace (thanks to a little ‘cheating with time’), the detective hero of a number of his Brighton-based bestsellers, and Steven Miller plays the part to perfection. He is superb as Grace, here on his first solo case as a detective constable, and anyone who knows the character will realise Miller has captured a number of his traits so very well that one can only hope he might be allowed to revisit the role elsewhere.

The Perfect Murder is undeniably good fun, with some great lines, and the stage version is probably even more Roald Dahl-esque than the short story. It deserves to do well on tour – and perhaps will nudge someone somewhere into letting us see a full Roy Grace novel transferred to the big or small screen before too long.