I have had a chequered history insofar as ‘straight plays’ at The Grand are concerned. During the 1960s there was a period when, each summer, there would be a series of dramas staged starring popular television actors of the time. As a teenager I would go see these as it was not often you got to see your favourite thespians in the flesh, and it was relatively cheap to get in. More recently the plays I have seen there have been of a more questionable standard, most of them having parts still played by actors of the same period!
I believe in approaching performances with an open mind, although you might not think that from the opening paragraph, and in this instance I am pleased that I did.
Looking Good Dead is a play adapted from a book by Peter James who, according to WH Smith, is ‘the best crime author of all time’, possibly because the people who buy his novels from that particular outlet always opt for the special offer options at the self checkout. Cynical, moi? Oui!
In addition to suffering from the legacy of others’ failings as outlined above, I was also braced for a disappointment when I saw the set which comprised the kitchen/living room of an obviously middle class family, a setting which recently seems to be compulsory in television and film dramas. I had a small mental bet with myself that they would argue a lot and have a stroppy teenager. A few minutes in and my bet was won – and lost obviously – as the lad was wearing a set of noise-cancelling headphones in order to spare him from the rows of his parents who were on the verge of bankruptcy despite living in a Sunday Supplement gaff in Brighton. Well, I thought, things can only get better, and fortunately they did, in fact they got a lot better.
Before we were introduced to the happy family there was a brilliantly worked scene in which a woman entered a room where she was due to meet someone but was told, by a voice on an amplified phone call, that they would be late so she should sit down until they arrived. I say it was brilliantly worked as the room seemed to appear from nowhere. The house lights were turned out to start the play and after only a second or two the room was revealed seeming to hover about eight or nine feet above the stage. When the woman took her seat the stage lights were switched to a new setting and we were back in the pristine living room where the mother, Kellie Bryce, played by Gaynor Faye, was vacuuming the floor and asking the son, Max, portrayed by Luke Ward-Wilkinson, to get his feet off the sofa. An instruction to which he was oblivious as he had on the aforementioned Beats. Enter the father, Tom, Adam Woodyatt, and the rowing and recriminations began.
Things didn’t go down the path one would have expected with the parents soul-searching and being faux psychological, they just had a proper barney, finally agreeing to find a way to raise the money to get them out of trouble. This was where the plot began to thicken and the reason for the presence of the mysterious woman in the disappearing room was revealed. It seems that Tom had found a memory stick on the train home after it had been dropped by a particularly obnoxious man. Instead of handing it in to the authorities he brought it home to view on his laptop, obviously a MacBook, to see if he could find out to whom it belonged. This was difficult as it was password protected, but fear not, the stroppy kid just happened to be a computer whizz and had some software which could crack passwords in the blink of an eye. At this point I made a mental note to delete my browsing history the minute I got home.
Once the memory stick was uploaded the magic of the set was utilised again but this time the phantom room in the air was visible at the same time as Tom and Max in the lounge. A large sheet of white gauze was draped in front of the elevated actors and this served the purpose of making the action there look as though it was on the computer screen. It also explained how the effect was created as, when the main stage lights were on the gauze was a piece of wall art. As I said, brilliant.
The woman on the high stage, whose name was Janie and played by Natalie Boakye, had had another call to tell her to make herself comfortable as her date was only a couple of minutes away. She did this by standing up and removing the trench coat she was wearing. At this point I would like to say that it is my birthday the week after next and on my way to the theatre I had called at Hotel Chocolat in order to spend my £5 voucher gifted by them to mark the occasion. I add this because when the coat was removed there was revealed an absolutely stunning woman dressed in a black leather catsuit and thigh boots which must have been specially made, as her legs seemed to go on forever, making me think that my birth certificate was surely a couple of weeks adrift and the real date was obviously today!
The story then began to unfold on both stages and involved a mysterious American businessman, Jonas Kent played by Ian Houghton, whose large order of gold Rolex watches seemed to be the perfect escape route from the Bryce family’s debt crisis. As this is a thriller there was obviously a murder committed and the ace team from Sussex Constabulary comprising; Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, Harry Long; DS Glenn Branson, Leon Stewart and DC Bella Moy, Gemma Stroyan were all over it like a rash. The final character was Tom Bryce’s other son, Mick, played by Mylo McDonald, who was on a gap year exploring the Andes.
Another piece of creative set design was the police station which floated on and off of one side of the stage without detracting from the action. Very inventive.
The twists and turns were believable enough to add credibility to the final denouement, although bringing back the culprit to centre stage after beginning to be dragged off to the police vehicle, in order that they could explain their motive, was a bit naff.
Performing a thriller on the stage of a large theatre is a big ask as the voice and body language need to be more exaggerated than on TV or film but this cast pulled it off very well indeed. It certainly restored my faith in drama at The Grand, for which I thank them all.
I must give a lot of credit to the Stage Adaptor, Shaun McKenna; Designer, Michael Holt; Lighting Designer, Jason Taylor and Composer and Sound Designer, Max Pappenheim all of whom performed their craft wonderfully well for Director, Jonathan Boyle. Let me not forget the Producer, Joshua Andrews and lastly the man who wrote the novel and produced the play, Peter James.
Looking Good Dead was looking dead good – as opposed to Janie who was dead good looking, as were Gaynor Faye and Gemma Stroyan obviously. It continues until Saturday, 11th September. More information and tickets are available from:-
All images supplied by Leeds Grand Theatre