Friday, 11 October 2013

Prime Suspect of the Lambs goes Donnie Darko, Forbydelsen or worse.

a night at the theatre.

It's behind you - panto season starts early.

The book group went to the theatre! Our man had an inside contact and we got tickets for £5 a head. I could tell I hadn't been to either a theatre or a funeral in ages because I couldn't remember how to switch off my mobile. Don't recall what the last one was. This one was Dark Road, written by Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin and the Lyceum's artistic director Mark Thomson who also directed. It was a mixed evening, largely enjoyable if a bit old fashioned, with a game cast and impressive set design.

I have of late, been cycling behind Edinburgh buses currently carrying adverts for a Jack Vettriano Retrospective (that's a tautology surely?) at the Kelvingrove. There is a similarity between Rankin and Vettriano and it's not just the fiver to get in. Both are living in one place while creating fantasies about another. Both are busy mocking up a pastiche, a style, a representation which they presumably admit is simulacrum but which they prefer to reality. For Vettriano it is book cover art with a limited but attractive palette, the emphasis on nostalgia and noir but (sadly) little ability to draw hands and faces. But if you don't look too closely and prefer cinema poster imagery and the days when smoking, suspenders and men wearing hats were cool then Vettriano is your man. He has sold more prints for B&B walls than just about all the rest of the world put together.

Rankin is doing the same but in crime novels. I have read one and may, if luck is a lady in a Vettriano painting, read another before I die. He does unapologetic clichés. Hard bitten cop who is/was/will be later, a drunk. And sexist. And divorced. And maverick. If you don't find this line of work tiresome you can read some of Rankin's dozens of novels featuring such a cop. And the title: Dark Road. Meaningless and bland. Could have been Dark Room, Dark City or better still Dark Eyes, given the killer's treatment of the victims. Like most of the writing you just get the feeling that not a lot of brain power was employed here.

So Rankin has ventured into theatre. Maybe because theatre has cachet. Both Vettriano and Rankin have sold enough units to hope for more than just sales figures. Both have perhaps eluded critical acclaim to the scale of their popularity. Rankin argues crime novels don't make the Booker. Vettriano argues the quantity over quality line, and resents the establishment's lack of recognition. I would argue both are pulp artists, albeit hard-working stylists, but most importantly, neither define the zeitgeist.

Lovies admire something on stage because it is on stage, and not necessarily because it is better for that. It is difficult to know why one would spend over the odds to go to the theatre and sit for a couple of hours watching people in the flesh and the possibility of fluffed lines and mistimed business while old codgers 2 rows back nod off in the gloom. Cinema is the dominant night out with small screen boxed sets quickly catching up. So does Theatre offer something that those don't?

Yes and no. Expensive drinks at the interval for one. The average audience age was probably late fifties and I'm afraid the script seemed aimed at this demographic. The thing opened quite pacily with projections, audio and an elaborate rotating stage that made the cuts between the 3 and half sets quick and dramatic. (The audio and projections returned from time to time and lent graphic weight and static interference to the off-stage murders.) Characters were sketched in quickly and even though there were some interesting fantasy scenes, it was all perfectly easy to follow and done with sufficient verve to keep us from drifting.

I did drift a bit though. I found myself looking at the scene painting. The graining on the hospital door was nicely done except at the top and bottom where the fluidity of the artist's hand had run out of space, probably due to being painted in situ. Very nicely done though. On the other hand the scenery shook when the door was slammed. It does seem a shame that the crux of the thing, the actual plot, was a bit ropy, leading to a hysterically (somewhat unlikely) melodramatic showdown. And no amount of acting (and it was good, at times great,) could rescue that.

The plot starts well – if covering familiar (in the genre, if not real life) ground. Scotland's first female police chief, Isobel McArthur, approaching retiral, is considering writing a book* featuring her biggest catch, serial killer Alfred Chalmers, who has languished in jail – or (did I understand correctly?) the Royal (Edinburgh Hospital) for 25 years. Did they get the right man or was Chalmers set up? Just to muddy the waters McArthur's daughter, a film student, wishing to make a documentary about the case, is pursuing contact with Chalmers.
*Rankin suggests a chief-of-police pension is not enough to send a daughter through college, and that a book (from a first time author) would. I have a feeling the reverse is more likely but can't find the figures on google.

The relationship between daughter and mother is tense – due to neglect – and I thought this was an original angle until I remembered seeing it all before with Sara Lund. Rankin is not frightened of familiar devices. Another episode featuring a fantasy fox character (that becomes all too real) is thrown into the mix, presumably for the visual interest (as it adds little to the ultimate plotting.) While partially successful it only really served to remind me how much more impressive the bad rabbit in Donnie Darko was. It bears repeating, Rankin is not afraid of familiar devices. In fact he welcomes them and allows his audience to welcome them as old friends, so one is constantly untroubled by realism and can put one's brain on hold while the pot comes to the boil in a melodramatic way complete with gunshots (very poorly dubbed) and stage blood.

piggy in the middle

And that was one of the biggest faults here. Some of the acting is powerful enough to suspend belief but the plot is frankly ludicrous. People come and go without any proper security from the ward on which Chalmers is supposedly being held, like a discount Silence of the Lambs. Maureen Beattie (ex Casualty – so she should know her way around a hammy melodrama) has been much admired by the reviews, although I found the male cast far more credible than the female. Also the men seemed to be wearing the right costumes. The women were all wearing stuff that looked a bit too carefully chosen and presented. I shouldn't have noticed the costumes at all if they were done well.

Spoiler alert. If you have tickets, skip to the final paragraph. I can't slag this turkey off, I mean discuss this further without revealing the plot. (It's not really a turkey, though I do have a few complaints. Mainly about the writing.) Nice of Rankin to give the lead to a woman. Scotland's first female police chief. Only she seems to be a bit rubbish. Not just fallible (and a poor mother) but manipulated all those years ago and hood-winked by her colleagues and eventually SHE contaminates the evidence. Because she is a silly woman presumably. And she shares the stage with her daughter, the needy and slightly dim film student who is continuously having audible sex off-stage with her mother's colleague, a young constable. He pulls it off slightly better than she does. But the parts do not flatter any of the women except Janis the female (comic relief) pc at the station who does a nice line in banter with McArthur. (Sarah the 4th victim / corpse is ok but was either another of the cast doubling up, or had to catch the bus home before curtain call at the end.) However it is the men who dominate, both on stage and in the plot. The plot outcome is partly satisfying, (we do find out the answer to the did he do it? / was he framed? question in an enjoyable table-turning scene) but there are at least a couple of devices that are so unlikely that you realise it is the audience and not McArthur who is being played for the fool.

quality acts

The denouement points to the ethical question of police officers establishing convictions through hunches versus evidence. If the evidence isn't there or is compromised should they bother themselves unduly? This old nutshell has been around since the dawn of crime fiction and the outcome of the plot was delightfully un-pc as it inadvertently champions the less obvious bang-'em-up-if-you-know-they're-a-bad-'un verdict.

I suspect Rankin is no longer (as he originally did) consulting the police, as to the veracity of their actions in his works, and likely methodology. (A killer caught 25 years ago would either have been sent to prison or if assessed to be criminally insane would be sent to Carstairs.) His staple is the cliché. He appears to be basing his research (if any) on crime fiction rather than police work. I don't believe the police are half as fallible as he insists they are. What we have here is a second rate Jane Tennison chasing a third rate Hannibal Lecter (residing at a low security hospital where a police detective is unable to barge a door in). Actually that sounds quite promising. It's perhaps a pity it was penned by a sexist and rather lazy writer (probably a maverick) in search of melodrama.

Terrible strap line!
Harking all the way back to Thomas Harris's Red Dragon (featuring Hannibal Lecter)
(And we weren't actually forced to think at all.)

I'd like to finish by saying there were many good moments. We all have a laugh about cassettes being old fashioned. And various jokes from the excellent Detective Frank Bowman (drinker, divorced, bawdy, possibly maverick) (played by Robert Gwilym.) There was a spine chilling moment when a door long open is closed to reveal a shadowy figure behind, (repeated later with a swivel chair) and the serial killer is very convincingly played by Philip Whitchurch. If only the writing and plot had been up to the quality of the set design, production and acting. If theatre has anything to offer it is the proximity to the audience. And the shock of this intimacy. We had moments of it here but like a Vettriano painting it just wasn't sufficiently original and groundbreaking for it to carry any real freshness or have something relevant to say. Thanks to Mike for arranging, my apologies for sounding so ungrateful! It was entertaining although not enlightening.

1 comment:

  1. A detour from the usual posts!
    Last thing i went to see was Mark Thomas 2 years back during the festival.
    I find social stuff hard being a loner on the coast, but things like this are good as you can sit hidden in the dark and absorb the show.

    Anyways when we going fatbiking!/ running v fatbiking? -:)