Ian Rankin and Mark Thomson’s Dark Road is far from a straight one. Lined with buried secrets and shadowy motives, it twists and turns, creating a tangible sense of unease before arriving at its unsettling, edge-of-the-seat climax.
Chief Superintendent Isobel McArthur (Maureen Beattie) is nearing retirement. Wanting to ensure she continues to support herself and her teenage daughter Alexandra (Sara Vickers), she decides to write her memoirs, focusing around the pivotal case of her career: when she and colleagues Frank (Robert Gwilym) and Fergus (Ron Donachie) put away serial killer Alfred Chalmers (Philip Whitchurch), almost exactly twenty-five years ago.
Something has always nagged at the back of McArthur’s mind, a doubt over Chalmers’ conviction. Though advised against the risk of opening old wounds by Frank and Fergus, she digs out the case files, trying to establish the facts of the killings of four teenage girls in the 1980s — and exorcise her own demons in the process.
Rankin’s touch is immediately apparent: gritty realism and morally ambiguous characters are put through a corkscrew of a plot which demonstrates that the theatre is, for the most part, as capable a platform for the modern psychological thriller as any. This is aided no end by Francis O’Connor’s complex yet effective set which itself twists, turns and transforms, and Malcolm Rippeth’s unnerving lighting design together with Philip Pinsky’s claustrophobic soundtrack. When the stage revolves and gigantic images of the murder victims are fleetingly projected to the jarring stabs of the score, Dark Road is at least as terrifying as anything capable of being portrayed on screen.
Beattie is excellent, with a performance which is taut and believable, portraying McArthur as a woman haunted by her past whilst fiercely trying to do the best for her daughter. Whitchurch is also strong as the convicted Chalmers, flitting from sympathetic warmth to ambiguous malevolence with ease. And, though his character’s part is relatively small, Donachie is a presence which dominates the stage whenever he appears.
If there is one area where Dark Road falters a little, it is more due to conventions of the medium than through fault of the piece itself. There are moments when the action or dialogue swerve close to melodrama as, without the traditional cinematic tropes of close-up or fast cuts, everything is literally forced to happen before our eyes. This results in things which would be truly terrifying on page or screen losing some of their power on stage — though Thomson’s direction is snappy enough to ensure that the piece quickly recovers its footing from any such potential bumps in the road.
Such minor hazards aside, Dark Road is a gripping and chilling piece of psychological drama, paced expertly by its creators and brought to life both by an accomplished cast and striking design. And as an ideal — if rather disturbing — slice of entertainment for those cold and dark autumn nights, it is hopefully not the last time we shall see Rankin’s justifiably sinful world seep from the pages of his novels to take form upon the stage.
Dark Road runs at the Royal Lyceum Theatre until 19 October. Further information and tickets are available on the Lyceum website.