REVIEW: Looking Good Dead – a formidable adaptation of the Peter James novel

Adam Woodyatt and Gaynor Faye as Tom and Kellie Bryce in Looking Good Dead

Venue: Milton Keynes Theatre

Writer:  Original by Peter James, adapted by Shaun McKenna

Director: Jonathan O’Boyle

Reviewer:   Ely King

Star Rating: ★★★1/2

Looking Good Dead, a new play adapted from the book by no.1 best-selling author Peter James, begins its weeklong residence at Milton Keynes Theatre bringing with it, thrills and chills in abundance. The gripping murder-mystery stars British television stalwarts Adam Woodyatt (EastEnders, On the Razzle) and Gaynor Faye (The Syndicate, Coronation Street, Emmerdale) as the leads, promising high-quality performances from the onset. Indeed, the scene is set before the show even begins, the auditorium is submerged in darkness with an eerily soothing nature soundtrack playing, a perfect juxtaposition to the production that follows.

The play revolves around the Bryce family and their efforts to navigate their own issues and exist as a cohesive family unit, only to have life as they know it screech to a halt as they witness the unspeakable. Patriarch Tom Bryce, played by Adam Woodyatt, finds a USB on a train and opens the files with the help of his son Max (Luke Ward-Wilkinson). Upon accessing the files, they are redirected to a website that puts their lives in danger and its anticipation aplenty as the Bryce family’s lives unravel and spiral out of control. Detective Superintendent Roy Grace is drafted in as the police officer leading the investigation (played by understudy Lee Peck on opening night).

Marketed as a crime-thriller, Looking Good Dead is more murder-mystery as it lacks the shock and jump factor required to be a true bone-chilling thriller. That said, the style opens up the piece to a wider audience making it more accessible to those wanting to branch out into the genre but who are a little intimidated by shows such as The Woman in Black.

Littered throughout the show are unexpected comedic moments that help relax the palpable tension in the air. At first, the jokes and commentary seem a tad out of place, but it soon becomes evident that the sarcastic intonation is aiding character development. Once this is clear, it all slots into place and helps support certain plot points by making characters more (or less) likeable.

Despite the story featuring multiple murders, Michael Holt’s design helps to soften the blow and the scenes are not graphic at all. Though the set is simplistic with three separate areas, it is impeccably designed and serves as the perfect background for the storyline, through seamless scene transitions. The most impressive part of the set is a screen that serves as the walls of the family home, but when backlit transforms to an incredibly effective-through screen.

Jason Taylor’s lighting design provides wonderfully nuanced moments of sensory deprivation. The lights dim during tense sections, inviting a harder look and renewed focus on the stage, resulting in a sense of unease. The spotlights and backlighting design are so effective that an audible jump is felt within the auditorium when the lights come up. Interestingly, sound is noticeably absent throughout the production. There is the occasional eerie score or bang as things heat up, but in the main, it’s up to the actors to do the storyline justice.

As the climax of the show nears, the language and action heat up exponentially. If you are someone offended by swearing, this isn’t the show for you. However, littered amongst the action is some heartwarmingly sentimental moments, helping to break up the onslaught of action and give a brief reprieve before the jaw-dropping finale.

Some details of the play do feel a little incomplete, and some monologues are a little long and, at times, arguably irrelevant. However, those that have read the book will likely understand and enjoy it a lot more than someone with no prior knowledge, as some background information seemed to be missing at points.

Overall, Looking Good Dead is an enjoyable play with a great cast and serves as a formidable adaptation of the Peter James novel of the same name.

Runs until: 21 August 2021

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