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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Theatre review: Dark Road

Published in the Guardian
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Three stars
IT HAS been a while since the stage has had much truck with genre fiction. Not since the days of weekly rep, when Agatha Christie was reigning queen of the whodunit, has there been much space in the theatre for plot-driven mysteries and thrillers. Those forms have proved better suited to novel and screen. That's why the theatrical debut of Ian Rankin, with a play co-written by artistic director Mark Thomson, is at once familiar and strange; the genre is everywhere, but we rarely see it on stage.

In manner and appearance, Dark Road plays by the rules of the modern TV cop show. Thanks to Forbrydelsen, Broadchurch and the adaptations of Rankin's own Inspector Rebus novels, all of us are up to speed with the idea of the troubled detective, a figure whose intuitive gift for sleuthing is threatened by inadequacies in their private life.

Thus we have Isobel McArthur, played with characteristic gutsiness by Maureen Beattie, who would be happier about her completion of 30 years' police service and her accolade as Scotland's first female chief constable if it weren't for her dysfunctional relationship with her 18-year-old daughter and the nagging doubt that her most high-profile conviction was made possible only by dodgy 1980s forensic techniques.

In this sense, Dark Road is less a whodunit than a did-he-really-do-it? Alfred Chalmers, played by Philip Whitchurch with a creepily believable mixture of anger and geniality, has spent 25 years in a psychiatric hospital for the murder of four young women, all of whom had sought abortions in the hospital where he was an orderly. The aging detectives who got him banged up are instinctively convinced of his guilt, but have conveniently lost the one flimsy piece of evidence that clinched the case. The killer's mind games that so unsettled them in the past are taking hold again.

Thomson draws out a set of ferocious performances in a pacy production that papers over the more implausible corners of the plot and the clunkier passages of exposition. What's harder to transcend is the hermetic nature of the genre: when everything rests on solving the mystery, there's little room for metaphor. Rankin goes some way to dealing with this by developing a theme about living with the consequences of guilty secrets and half-remembered mistakes, but by the end, when the play lurches into Victorian melodrama, we're left with the empty feeling of a story which, however well told, lacks resonance.
© Mark Fisher 2013
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