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The Perfect Murder stage production: The Oxford Times

By Chris Gray

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FOUR STARS

Television’s Endeavour Morse is not the only fictional sleuth currently to be seen showing his prowess in the early stages of his career. We can also watch Peter James’s Roy Grace at the start of his Brighton crime-busting days as a humble detective constable in The Perfect Murder, which is playing to packed houses at Milton Keynes Theatre this week.

The taut plotting and sudden surprises for which James is noted are certainly displayed here in this hugely entertaining two-hour play, expertly translated from page to stage by adapter Shaun McKenna.

The piece presents a star vehicle for the considerable talents – long recognised, of course – of Les Dennis. Very much more than a comedian – though comedy of a distinctly blackish hue does have a welcome place here – he dominates the stage from the play’s opening moments.

We find him first enjoying the delights of Brighton’s Kitten Parlour brothel, specifically those supplied by Croatian prostitute Kamila Walcak (Simona Armstrong, with an Eastern European accent sometimes a little difficult to penetrate). Dennis’s Victor Smiley, an IT consultant with an egg box company, has been a regular customer for a while and has struck up such a rapport with Kamila that he does not hesitate to speak of his plans to murder his missus. Her life insurance would be a nice nest egg, he says, should the blonde lovely choose to share a life with him.

Why – the loot apart – Victor is determined on uxoricide (yes, that is the word) becomes apparent in the next scene when we move to his sixties’ suburban house in Saltdean and meet the appalling Joan Smiley (the excellent Claire Goose). Argumentative, opinionated, shrewish – she is truly the housewife from hell. Mind you, it is clear that she, too, has something of a cross to bear in Victor, who could clearly bore for Britain, and snores, we are told more than once, like an elephant.

Joan’s redeeming feature is that she is very pretty. Unknown to Victor, and initially to the audience, she also has a bit on the side in the shape of white-van-driving Cockney Don Kirk (Gray O’Brien). Besides delivering on the rumpy-pumpy for Joan, he also supplies a neat line in self-penned rhyming slang. Donald Duck? You have it in one.

So how does Roy Grace come into all this? Well, initially we find him in consultation with Kamila – not in her usual ‘professional’ capacity but as a psychic with a gift for knowing where bodies are buried, submerged or otherwise disposed of.

Soon young Grace – engagingly portrayed by Steven Miller – comes calling Chez Smiley after a spot of unpleasantness there, which sends the plot off in ever more unusual directions . . .

As I said, this is a most entertaining play, impeccably acted under the direction of Ian Talbot. Effective thrillers are not seen often on stage these days, but this is definitely one. I do not know if there are plans for a West End transfer eventually, but this production certainly merits one.