Review: Ian Rankin’s Dark Road is real thriller

Ian Rankin is on to a winner. Pic: Ian Rutherford
Ian Rankin is on to a winner. Pic: Ian Rutherford
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VICIOUS, twisted and visceral, the world premiere of Dark Road, Ian Rankin’s first ever stage play, launched the Royal Lyceum’s 2013/14 season on Saturday, a roar of approval bringing the cast back to the stage at the end for no fewer than four curtain calls.

Dark Road

Royal Lyceum Theatre

Star rating: * * * * * *

Writing with Lyceum artistic director Mark Thomson, who also directs, it’s clear the Rebus creator understands the public’s insatiable appetite for crime dramas and, in particular, their fascination with serial killers.

Between them, Rankin and Thomson are also conscious of the power of that mainstay of television schedules, the police procedural. And so, Dark Road opens with a throbbing theme that wouldn’t be out of place on your favourite ITV cop show. Returning to punctuate scenes, like the stings that book end ad breaks, it highlights the influence of the medium on Dark Road, which despite a running time of two and a half hours (including a 20 minute interval in which to attempt to work out who-did-it) seldom dips in pace.

And so the story unfolds. Imagine spending 25 years in prison. Alfred Chalmers has done just that for the horrific murders of four young Edinburgh girls – all the while protesting his innocence.

Chief Superintendent Isobel McArthur was one of the team responsible for putting him away. But his conviction has always haunted her. As she approaches retirement, McArthur decides to review the case. Could she have destroyed the life of an innocent man? And could his story secure her a lucrative publishing deal to supplement her income? Unaware her daughter has struck up a relationship with the killer, the policewoman begins to delve into the past.

With the truth about Chalmers’ conviction unravelling, Rankin produces twist upon twist to keep the audience guessing, blind-siding them as the tale builds towards a shattering climax.

In the role of Edinburgh’s uncompromising chief of police, Maureen Beattie, fondly remembered as Casualty’s Sandra Nicholl, commands the stage effortlessly with a sympathetic and generous execution of the role that cements her reputation as one of Scotland’s finest actors.

As McArthur and Chalmers play their mind games, Philip Whitchurch gives an electrifying performance that is by turns disturbing, charming and tormented, as a man who has forfeited his life.

Stoic support comes from Robert Gwilym as the eternally angry head of CID, Frank Bowman, whose gallows humour allows him many of the best laugh-out-loud one-liners, while Sara Vickers is suitably headstrong as McArthur’s rebellious teenage daughter

Ron Donachie as Black Fergus, McArthur’s now retired mentor, is nicely paternal in an underwritten but pivotal role.

Thomson’s direction is pacey, creating chilling, edge of the seat moments of palpable unease that draw involuntary gasps of shock.

Dark Road establishes Rankin as the fresh new voice of Scottish theatre. With Thomson, he has produced an unpretentious, honest evening’s entertainment that, like his crime novels, leave you desperate to discover more about his characters. It really would be criminal were Isobel McArthur and her colleagues at Fettes to disappear without trace.

• Run ends October 19