Television is full of police procedural drama, whilst bookshops are stacked with shelves and shelves of crime fiction – it seems that the general public can’t get enough of it. This begs the question, why don’t we see many plays set in the Major Incident Room of the local police station?
‘An Unnecessary Murder’ has gone part way towards answering that question at the Barnfield Theatre, Exeter this week. Bringing his characters from ‘The TV Detective’ series from novel to stage, local author Simon Hall has opened his work to Ad Hoc Productions, who provide a mixture of actors from the professional and amateur world to raise money for Hospiscare. Directed by Jac Bevan the production runs from Wednesday 25 to Saturday 28 April.
The first half introduces short punchy scenes with sympathetic and interesting characters that drive the plot forward. Dividing the stage into different locations and presenting flashbacks mid-narrative created the movement you’d get from any modern crime drama, with a nice use of multimedia to project a short film of the commission of the crime onto the back wall of the set.
Unfortunately, the sympathetic characters are all in the supporting cast, with our two antiheroes, TV Reporter Dan Groves, played by Sam Pike, and Detective Chief Inspector Adam Breen, played by Marc Colson, coming together as two of the most unpleasant egos to clash at a South West crime scene. The necessary arrogance that comes with both jobs are presented in such a way that you feel sorry for anyone who has to work with them and rather hope that the murderer gets away with it.
On the one hand we meet Groves through the eyes of three characters. An all too brief appearance from Kimberley Van-Stein as a local prostitute offered some lovely interaction with the audience but set Groves up with an “I’ve never lost a story yet!” arrogance. When this encounter almost costs him his job, his editor offers him a switch to keep him in employment. Here Nicola Leigh appears charming and reasonable as editor, Lizzie Riley, whilst Groves reacts badly to the thought of moving from covering environment to crime.
We then meet his cameraman, Nigel Stein, played by Leigh Steedman, who goes some way to persuade the audience that there are worse reporters to have to work with, and the mood swings are worth persevering with because there used to be a nice guy underneath – he’s just going through a rough patch. Poor Stein gets short shrift in the second half when he asks Groves to go for a pint only to find that his old friend would rather be sleuthing. Whilst I know I am supposed to take this moment as Groves falling for the profession he thought he’d despise, I couldn’t help but feel for the shunned workmate.
On the other hand, by the time Groves meets DCI Breen I was delighted that the Chief Inspector was giving Groves a hard time and pulling him down a peg or two. There were flashes of camaraderie being developed as they turned their attention to solving the murder – but as the relationship grew it became apparent that the only person more arrogant than a reporter is a policeman, “Call me Chief Inspector!”. Colson gives a haunted performance as Breen, slapping down the reporter whilst worrying about his troubled home life.
It all came to a head in a fascinating scene where Bevan’s direction highlighted the horrors of real world confrontation. At just the point Breen was ready to apologise for the way he had treated Groves, the reporter storms into the room offering a torrent of abuse with further, “I was right! I was right!” arrogance. With Breen unable to get a word in edgeways, it went further to belittle both characters – that one could be so human as to let troubles at home impact on his workplace and the other could continue to be so puffed up he flounced around the stage spitting a perverse conceited self-pity that was nothing short of uncomfortable viewing. A low point for both characters, but some of the grittiest drama of the night.
Behind this relationship was an interesting whodunnit with a range of suspects offering bright and memorable performances from Midge Mullin and Denise Gough. The scenes where the suspects were questioned were interesting to watch, with a clear trail of clues to allow the audience to try and piece together the story before our team.
When an arrest was made our team of Groves and Breen (“Call me Adam!” – they’re now getting on) are united and it became apparent that the only person more arrogant than a reporter or a policeman is a lawyer, here played with a delightful hostility by Nicola Crew.
But ultimately, the second half of this production loses the momentum built in the first. We find ourselves trapped in the Major Incident Room, and whilst there is a race against time, our central characters shrug their shoulders and agree that the job is nothing like you see on TV and there’s a lot of waiting around. That may allow for character development, but it’s too little too late for these two and served as a reminder that the interesting story here is the crime.
With no confessions, no final confrontation or battle of wills and no dramatic moment of finding that last piece of evidence to crack the case, we’re left with action on the end of a police radio, an explanation of what really happened and it all fizzles out – which is a shame, because the twist is a good one! Finally, the same multimedia that helps build the opening acts as a reminder at the end that when it comes to crime drama, there’s always more action in the flashbacks than there is in solving the crime.
Last review from the Barnfield Theatre: Grand Guignol
As a postscript to this production I must put on my defence solicitor hat and remind everyone that whilst the solicitor in this play was expensive and difficult to deal with, this country offers free advice and assistance to everyone whilst at the police station through the legal aid scheme, this includes face to face advice or advice over the telephone – if in doubt, ask for the duty solicitor!