Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

alexandra and isobel

Sionainn Ciara Kavanagh as Alexandra and Jean Wilde as Isobel. Pictures: Roy Palmer

Dark Road

Hall Green Little Theatre


IAN Rankin’s first sortie into the world of theatre is hardly a gentle one with this dark, psychological thriller about a manipulative serial killer.

Rankin, best known for his Inspector Rebus novels, mainstays of the Tartan Noir genre, has produced not so much a whodunit as a did he dunit as Chief Super Isobel McArthur contemplates retirement and writing her memoirs.

As her colleagues Det Super Frank Bowman and retired Chief Constable Black Fergus point out, the memoirs of Isobel as Scotland’s first Chief Constable* is hardly going to generate queues of eager purchasers stretching around the block at Waterstones – but if she was to include the inside story of brutal serial killer Alfred Chalmers . . .

It was her first big case and his conviction is approaching its 25th anniversary with Chalmers still a cause macabre big enough to sell a few books.

Except Frank and Fergus are strenuously opposed to the idea of opening up what could be a whole barrel of worms and we are left  not quite sure if Isobel wants to revisit the case just to sell her book or is it something more fundamental – a gnawing suspicion that all was not right with the conviction.chalmers and Alexandra

Chalmers was convicted of four murders, women who had had recent abortions and all killed with brutal savagery – but evidence was circumstantial at best and forensics could only link him to the final victim, a victim which did not fit into the pattern of the other three.

Richard Woodward as serial killer Alfred Chalmers with Alexandra

That sets the scene for a drama that brings in conflict between not only Isobel and her colleagues but also between her and daughter Alexandra, while behind it all, in his secure psychiatric unit, is the spectre of Chalmers, still influencing events after 25 years inside.

Jean Wilde gives us two sides of Isobel. The confident and competent chief super, with loyal colleagues and then the struggling mother who is struggling to cope with her home life and is losing control and trust of daughter Alexandra, played with rebel offspring angst, and with a hobby that appears to consist largely of sex, by Sionainn Ciara Kavanagh.

Alexandra is in the midst of a final year project at university, making a film documentary which she sees as a search for truth and justice. No prizes for guessing where that is heading.

Paul Holtom as Black Fergus is a conciliatory ex-copper, soon to be confined to a wheelchair, who tries to keep the peace while wanting to let sleeping dogs, or in this case serial killers, lie.

James Weetman’s Frank on the other hand is another kettle of fish. Excitable and very Welsh, he strenuously opposes any hint of looking into the Chalmers case. The man, he states, is guilty, no doubt, no question, no new lookno matter what the evidence, or lack of it, shows.

And then there is Chalmers, the most reasonable of them all, played by Richard Woodward in a most civil and polite manner, who lost his wife and daughter as well as his liberty when he was convicted. He says he bears no animosity twards the police, who were only doing their job as they saw fit. A quite reasonable man with sinister running right through him like the lettering in seaside rock and all watched over in friendly fashion – too friendly perhaps - by nurse, Judith, played by Katherine Williams.

The dearth of evidence hints that his conviction may have been unsafe while Frank’s passionate conviction that he is guilty hints that there is more to this tale than we have been led to believe – which of course is what thrillers are all about.

Ian Rankin wrote the play with Mark Thomson, the artistic director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh where it had its premiere three years ago this month, with no doubt Rankin supplying the gruesome plot and Thomson, who directed, aiding dialogue and staging.

And in that he created a challenge, particularly for amateur companies, in portraying the three scenes of Isobel’s police office, her home and an interview room at Chalmers secure unit, and if that wasn’t enough, there are 17 scene changes to contend with, which lends itself more to film than theatre.

The original production had rotating sets, here director Roy Palmer has cleverly created a set which shoehorns all three scenes on stage at once, with the secure unit interview room elevated, leaving Chalmers looming over everyone, to give a sort of double decker stage, with all the scenes separated merely by lighting.

Well into double figure scene changes could have meant stop start all eveningcast but this simple solution not only gives each scene the space it needs but allows for near instant transitions as cast can move seamlessly from scene to scene with the only delay coming from an occasional costume change.

Another challenge comes with the scenes from Isobel’s troubled mind in her fitful nights at home as she conjures up visits from Chalmers, a mysterious man with a fox’s head and even the death of Sarah, the final victim, played by Ailish Reel.

The cast of ten who bring Rankin's tale to life

Dream sequences in thrillers are never easy on stage relying largely on frightener music, sound effects and scary primary colour lighting, which are competently done here although the opening sequence before the audience has a clue what is going on is perhaps lost until much later in the play.

Without giving away too much of the plot the play examines relationships – old flames and old flings, mother, daughter and casual sex – it looks at friendships and loyalty and, perhaps most of all, truth, honesty and doing the right thing.

As we said it is not a whodunit, there is no crime to solve, so it is not so much about twists and turns as revelations and discoveries all leading to a fateful and dramatic ending and you are kept guessing until the final scenes as to where the real truth lies with the tension building slowly and skillfully around you.

On opening night the Scottish accents wandered a little from time to time and the pace flagged a tad in parts but that should disappear as the play finds its natural rhythm, indeed it started to pick up after the interval, as did the sound after some very quiet passages in the opening act. All in all it is an intriguing and entertaining thriller. To 30-04-16

Roger Clarke


*It might appear baffling that Scotland’s supposedly first woman chief constable is now a chief superintendent, which on the face of it seems a fair old demotion, but under the The Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Bill of 2012 the eight regional police forces in Scotland, each with its own chief constable, along with the Scottish Police Services Authority, were merged into Police Scotland from 1 April 2013 under a new single chief constable. 

Hall Green Little Theatre

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