Peter James’ Wish You Were Dead – Festival Theatre

Based on the Novelist Peter JamesWork

Adapted by Shaun McKenna

Directed by Jonathan O’Boyle

Rating: 2 out of 5.

The thirst for more of Detective Roy Grace is palpable throughout the Festival Theatre; with the most recent televised series featuring the much-beloved character concluding, audiences returned to the theatre to watch Shaun McKenna’s sixth adaption of a Peter James novel, this time with Wish You Were Dead.

Crime never takes a vacation, as this once hopeful group of Detective Grace and his wife, pathologist Cleo (with their infant son), fly off for peace with nanny Kaitlynn Carter (Gemma Stroyan) and her partner Jack to rural France for a stay in a lavish, if off the beaten track château. Things don’t quite hit the right notes however as this vacation begins to lack a few creature comforts: from the Wi-Fi to a television. But what this uncomfortable abode does boast, are the remnants of a crime Grace thought long solved.

The direction plunges into spoof territory fast, almost a parody of the genre which simply doesn’t balance with some of the line deliveries of (suggested) extreme violence and gore. And yet, the actions of Jonathan O’Boyle’s direction are remarkably tame with the source material – with awkward transitions and character movements throughout the performance, slugging along the pacing and in moments completely negating any attempted tension: leading to a finale which isn’t deserving of the narrative ideas, nor the majestic setting.

In a setting in which the audience may find themselves gazing longer than the performances onstage, Michael Holt expertly captures the magnificence of rural France with Château-sur-L’eveque. It’s opulent, but dusted and eerie – especially with Jason Taylor’s more withdrawn lighting. And where Max Pappenheim’s ominous composition ripples with canticle chants, and an enormous looming portrait of Christ’s crucifixion, it makes for an engaging set-up, which strays closer to a ghoulish horror tale than that of a crime thriller. The ghostly knocking alongside the lack of phone reception and shifting suits of armour may not initially appear to align with the goings on audiences expect, but make for a more enrapturing mystery than what we receive.

When combined with the Detective’s gradual questions of their host, the Vicomte, whereabouts and his step-daughter’s frequent bustling and berating of their new guests, gradually the château becomes less of an enticing escape. The real mystery, however, is Kaitlynn’s missing partner, only heightening the thrill that something more morose is going on in these halls – and drawing the audience into that familiar realm of mystery to be solved.

There must be a suspension of disbelief for any crime thriller, part of the fun is the audience’s nature is imagining what they might do in the scenarios, how they bemoan at the character’s poor choices which lead them to danger – but Wish You Were Dead frequently demonstrates a lack of delicacy or thought, often being played for comedic effect than any sense of genuine dread. Suspense is a rarity, a threat even more fleeting, and unfortunately George Rainsford’s performance as the ’troubled’ Detective lacks authority or deserving weight to carry the role with believability. Giovanna Fletcher and Leon Stewart perform earnest attempts with the weak script, but even with their more natural performances and a clear attempt at injecting emotion, McKenna’s adaptation leaves too many loose threads, and not enough red herrings for much enjoyment or the cast to work with. 

Unfortunately, our gallery of rogues also suffers tremendous misdirection and characterisation – flipping on one another or becoming ensnared in the most obvious of reverse-psychology tactics. Where Rebecca McKinnis has the stage for most of the production, benefitting from having a soupçon of engaging motivation, the reveal of Clive Mantle’s role in the story may as well come with a cartoon sound effect. At no point is there an authenticity that Grace, Cleo or their friends are in any genuine danger – even when the production attempts to lean into suggestions of brutality, it’s all done off-stage and hindered by poor ‘shot’ noise effects or fade-outs to conceal the absence of action.

Lacking Grace (both character and decorum), Peter James’ latest touring production to take to the Edinburgh crowds finds itself lost without direction, scrambling with awkward reveal and last-minute twists to clamber together a crime thriller which is a lot more of the former than the latter. Even boasting a marvellously astute setting with world-building and a handful of acceptable roles is, sadly, not enough to salvage two hours of an unintentional comedic farce. Audiences thankfully don’t have too long to wait for Grace series four.

Unintentional Comedic Farce

Peter James’ Wish You Were Dead runs at The Festival Theatre until April 8thth. Tuesday – Saturday, 19.30pm. Wednesday and Saturday matinee at 14.30pm.
Running time – Two hours with one interval. Suitable for ages 13+
Tickets begin from £25.00 and may be obtained here.


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