Global bestselling crime writer Ian Rankin has received the highest international accolades including the Diamond Dagger and America's Edgar Award. His popular novels about Detective Inspector Rebus were adapted for television, set on the mean streets of Edinburgh.
Given the success of Rankin’s detective fiction it was an inspired idea of Artistic Director Mark Thomson to commission Rankin to write a stage play for the Royal Lyceum Theatre.
In real life crime, cold cases and appeals investigate past evidence and unsafe verdicts: after the surprising acquittal of Amanda Knox in 2011 for the murder of Meredith Kercher, a retrial began this week at the Supreme Court in Florence.
The central plot of Dark Road focuses on Chief Superintendent Isobel McArthur who has serious doubts about the conviction of Alfred Chalmers who was found guilty of killing four girls in Edinburgh.
Approaching retirement, she is still haunted by this serial murder case 25 years previously, since when Chalmers has been locked away in a psychiatric hospital.
The ingenious revolving stage set neatly combines Isabel McArthur’s living room in her flat, her office and an interview room at the hospital.
As a senior Police officer she pursues her personal fight for justice, while as a single mother she faces problems with her belligerent student daughter, Alexandra.
The dramatic intrigue and darkening mystery spins around with increasing pace. Music, lighting, dream sequences, projected graphic images and police tape recordings all create a chilling mood.
Maureen Beattie portrays Isobel with a fierce, determined drive as Fergus and Frank, her two long standing male colleagues demonstrate how sexual office politics can undermine her authority.
At home, her relationship with Alexandra is less clear cut, lacking close connection. But no wonder - her carefree, tough cookie daughter is more interested in climactic moments with her boyfriend than understanding her mother’s difficult job.
The strongest scenes are during the tense police interrogations between McArthur and Chalmers while the nurse flicks idly through a magazine.
Philip Whitchurch portrays the convicted killer with a cool gaze and composed manner capturing a shady, shifty chameleon personality which switches between vulnerable and menacing.
The revolving stage is used to great effect as the action speeds up towards a rapidly resolved and thrilling denouement.
With its ambitious multi-layered storyline, numerous characters and location scenes, Dark Road feels like it was written as a novel and directed with all the filmic devices to suit a TV detective show.
The most successful edge-of-your-seat stage thrillers have a very different theatrical structure where simplicity is the key - the Country House drawing room set for Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap or a classic Courtroom scene like the brilliantly atmospheric Silence in Court (Edinburgh Fringe 2013).
The overall verdict?: Dark Road is an entertaining, psychological crime drama led by two convincing, quietly emotional performances from Beattie and Whitchurch, with a pretty powerful punch of an ending.
Unfortunately, the audience is left with not so much a net of red herrings as unexplained loose ends in this complex and contrived plot. There’s too much going on for such a short two act play.
Runs til 19 October, 2013