Hello?..Hello? Anybody there?
You’ve been locked in a coffin and left in a hole in the ground in the middle of a Sussex forest…all for greed.
That’s the opening of Peter James’ Dead Simple, a fiendishly clever thriller that kept everyone at Monday night’s opening, in Milton Keynes Theatre, biting their nails and sitting on the edge of their seats.
Being buried alive is an unthinkable horror. Being put in a sealed coffin that’s slowly filling up with water and sharing it with nightmarish beasties.. well I wouldn’t have lasted more than a few minutes before the hysteria and frenzied screaming began.
But cool property developer Michael Harrison is obviously made of sterner stuff. A few whimpers, yes, but I think he holds up pretty well.
He’s getting married and his cronies treat him to a stag night to remember. After kidnapping him they take him to a remote clearing to carry out their pretty sick prank only for it to go disastrously wrong.
So here we are in the clichéd race against time – but with a twist.
The only thing that might save him is a walkie-talkie whose other half has been found by a profoundly mentally challenged boy whose father recovers crashed vehicles.
Davey (a compelling performance by Grange Hill’s Josh Brown) isn’t the full shilling. He lives for his American cop shows on TV and playing games on the X Box. Will Davey respond to Michael’s increasingly emotional pleas for help?
Dead Simple is far from easy viewing – anyone slightly claustrophobic will empathise with Hollyoaks hunk Jamie Lomas who is put through the wringer in this tightly plotted story.
The only man who can save him is Peter James’ rugged hero, Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, but, frankly, he isn’t much cop as a sleuth.
There are the usual suspects – the glamorous girlfriend (Holby City’s sexy Tina Hobley); the resentful junior business partner (Emmerdale’s Rik Makarem,) and a rather effete uncle Bradley (Doctors’ Michael McKell) but, with no clues, he turns to a psychic for help.
This is the second James’ book to be slickly adapted by Shaun McKenna for the stage. Perfect Murder gave us a youthful Roy Grace, a superb black comedy and an entertaining evening trying to solve the case before the final reveal.
Ex-Coronation Street bad boy, Gray O’Brien (yes, he of the lilting Scottish accent who tried to kill his wife Carla O’Conner) was a dodgy taxi driver, sporting an even shakier English accent in Perfect Murder.
This time around he’s a mature Det Supt Grace, still with a terrible English accent, and lumbered with a cheeky pup of a DS (a likable turn by Marc Small) who ought to be done for insubordination for constantly calling his boss by his first name.
O’Brien, accent aside, makes a creditable copper who talks the talk and employs occasionally unorthodox methods to get a result (and, yes, some forces have consulted the other side for information and help).
This is a good, old fashioned whodunnit that features a cast of well known TV faces, that keeps the audience on its toes throughout. There’s not as much humour in this follow-up production but being abandoned in a coffin is no laughing matter.
But Peter James has done his homework (including having himself locked into a coffin to experience the effect) and there are subtle references in the storyline to real life cases (plus a teasing leg cross salute to Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct).
Ian Talbot directs with flair, as always, and Michael Taylor’s clever set allows us to watch Harrison’s ordeal and swap locations from Davey’s hideaway to the kidnapped man’s luxury Brighton apartment.
Sarah Baxendale’s psychic, Zoe, doesn’t have much to do, which is a pity. I enjoyed the Mystic Meg moments in Perfect Murder.
Dead Simple runs at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday.
Peter James’ follow-up stage thriller, Dead Simple, is fiendishly clever, tightly plotted and its cast of TV favourites give us a slick and entertaining whodunnit.