DI John Rebus has retired, but his mind is never far from the job – even when he’s been invited as a plus one to a swanky dinner party. Rebus: A Game Called Malice takes the detective off the streets of Edinburgh and into the realms of Agatha Christie’s famous sleuths; this new play (currently in a short run at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch) was written by Ian Rankin and Simon Reade, and sees John Michie follow in the footsteps of John Hannah and Ken Stott as the titular character.
It all starts out innocently enough as an evening hosted by Paul & Harriet Godwin, with Harriet having planned out a fictional murder mystery for the party to solve in between courses. On the guest list are Jack Fleming and his current partner Candida Jones, as well as lawyer Stephanie Jeffries – who, of course, brings along Rebus. Bits of the fake case are shared as guests pop in & out to top up the wine supply or have a smoke, but talk soon turns to some slightly shady connections (and dark secrets) amongst those present: a suspicious death and inappropriate relationships are just the tip of the iceberg. Until something fresh comes up…
Now, this isn’t your typical murder mystery; I’m notoriously not great at getting all the way to the solution in detective fiction (I work best with hunches and a bit of circumstantial evidence) – however, this is definitely a case that can only really be solved by someone on the stage rather than anyone sat in the audience, so don’t go in hoping to best DI Rebus. It is interesting how it spreads out from the original game scenario and brings in incidents from the characters’ lives, though it maybe overcomplicates the tangled web for a show with a relatively short running time, and means that suspense is rather overlooked in favour of wrapping everything up.
On that subject, I normally don’t approve of an interval being forced into a show whose performance lasts only around 90 minutes, as it generally interrupts the flow and takes you out of the moment; it just about works in this case, though, as the first act ends on a natural cliffhanger and it gives the audience a chance to regroup & talk theories. Perhaps having Rebus briefly break the fourth wall at the beginning of the second act (as he does at the very start and end of the play) might have made the restart a little more theatrical, and further justified the intermission.
It’s funny how writers can so competently & confidently write about subjects in which they have no expertise, managing to make it seem like they’re highly qualified – but then fall apart when they decide that one of their characters has to be an influencer or have some other vague interest in social media. The things these characters say just never quite sound natural, yet the remarks from the older generation that they’re trying to explain the whole concept to sound very familiar indeed… Candida (you already guessed it was her, didn’t you?) does at least develop and become slightly less predictable after her clunky introduction, but it’s clear that playwrights have now moved on from the obligatory selfie (that’s so 2010s) to the obligatory influencer to confirm modernity.
Terry Parsons’ set design is absolutely stunning. The action takes place in a living/dining area that you just know is part of a big house at the fancy end of the street, bedecked with paintings and shelves full of leather-bound books, as well as plenty of expensive-looking lamps & various flower arrangements. The attention to detail is excellent, so much so that I actually instinctively found myself reading the room before the show began, in advance of Rebus talking about that exact thing. It’s also great to see that the doors lead the actors off into corridors (similarly decorated), rather than the usual dark-walled backstage spaces.
Rebecca Charles and Forbes Masson are excellent as the put-upon Harriet and her leering husband Paul, showing clearly that the pair have drifted apart over the years with subtle sideways glances and the odd biting comment. I have never read any Rebus or seen any of the TV adaptations before, so I can’t comment on how the story and style fits with both this and the book series, however the description including phrases such as “gritty mystery” and “whisky-loving detective” does give me some idea – and John Michie’s confident performance fits well into this, with his dry humour and demonstrations that the retired DI is as quick-witted as ever.
This is a show that will probably be more pleasing for those who already have some kind of a relationship with the Rebus universe, as you get the added satisfaction of recognising some of the references (whether it’s the name of a former colleague, or something related to Rebus’ past), however it definitely stands alone well enough for you to go in blind. It certainly taps into the zeitgeist, as crime & detective fiction is still incredibly popular, and provides an alternative to the dominance of Agatha Christie stage productions.
My verdict? An enjoyable piece of stage crime, if slightly lacking in suspense – a confident & quick-witted performance from John Michie as the eponymous detective.
Rebus: A Game Called Malice runs at Queens Theatre Hornchurch until 25 February 2023. Tickets are available online or from the box office.