A red carpet outside the theatre, police cadets on every door, a full house… and two of my very favourite soap stars in the lead roles. My expectations were high for this adaptation of the novel by Peter James. As you’d expect from James, the play is set in Brighton, and it focuses on the long-term marriage of Victor and Joan Smiley (Shane Richie and Jessie Wallace) – who, when together, are anything but “smiley by name and smiley by nature.”
As we soon discover, the couple’s constant sniping and goading have worn their relationship down; so much so, that they are literally on the brink of murdering each other. It’s an old-fashioned concept and, indeed, there is something a bit dated about this whole production, but the nostalgia is all part of the charm. In contrast to the current fashion for gritty thrillers, The Perfect Murder is never too scary or threatening, remaining unmenacing and comedic throughout.
The first half of the play is full of twists and unexpected turns, and the obvious chemistry between Richie and Wallace lets the action move at a cracking pace. Both the actors deliver classic caricatures of a dysfunctional marriage, and convincingly step far enough away from their familiar television roles to lead the audience along with them. The action steps up a gear too with the arrival of Don, a larger-than-life, rhyming-slang-loving buffoon. Actor Stephen Fletcher brilliantly captures the very being of his character, creating some of the funniest moments of all.
So I settled down after the interval to enjoy the second half – but sadly, it was a disappointment. As the climax nears, I felt there was far too much shouting between the characters, yet very little real tension to hold onto. There was no further unravelling of the mystery; only a great deal of narrative exposition, which resulted in too-neat and far too obvious an ending. And given the current political climate, where migration and trafficking are both important and sensitive issues, I was a little uncomfortable with the stereotyped inclusion of an Eastern European prostitute who has psychic powers.
There is no doubt that the play is highly entertaining in places – like most of the audience, I laughed out loud several times. And it will no doubt please loyal Peter James fans, not just in Brighton but everywhere. But for me, the conclusion didn’t fulfil the promise of the first half; I was left wanting something a bit more. Overall, The Perfect Murder wasn't quite so perfect for me.