The stage adaptation of The Perfect Murder is coming to a number of venues across the area over the next few weeks.
We had a chat with the author of the original novella Peter James who talked about the casting of Eastenders duo Shane Richie and Jessie Wallace, the joy of thrilling an audience and the proecess of adapting it for the stage.
Peter, how is it having Shane play this role on stage?
Peter: I’ve always hugely liked him as an actor – he has a lot of warmth but also the able to be chilling if he chooses, and it’s almost like he was born to play this role. [Laughs] He’s obviously not as fat as I’d written Victor but he has the acting skills to really carry off Victor Smiley, who is someone who is both arrogant but also likeable and sympathetic. Is Shane like that too? [Laughs] Well, I don’t know about likeable and sympathetic!
And what do you feel Jessie brings to the role of Joan?
Peter: The characters have been married for 20 years and they’re both disillusioned with each other. Joan had expected Victor to be a multi-millionaire by now and that they’d be living in a grand mansion. Victor expected they’d have kids and that Joan would still be beautiful. But the reality is they have no kids, they’re still in the same house, he’s about to lose his job and Joan has let herself go. Then when she starts to have an affair she goes through an amazing transformation. She has her hair done and 20 years drop off her age. She goes back to being this beautiful young thing that Victor first met but now of course it’s too late to save the marriage. The great thing about Jessie is that she can play that perfectly. She’s got that ability to be a duckling, then to revert to her natural state, of a swan.
The Perfect Murder has a comedic element, doesn’t it?
Peter: Throughout all my writing I’ve always had elements of comedy and darkness very close to each other. I go out with the police a lot and they cope with so many tragedies through gallows humour. There’s bodies on the deck and they’ll find something funny, otherwise they’d go nuts. I think horror is always stronger if you get the audience laughing, and then turn it on them. With The Perfect Murder, with the first part of the first act audiences are really not sure if they should be laughing or not. That goes right up to when one of the characters is murdered. There’s a hysterical body disposal scene and it’s interesting because some audiences are laughing their heads off and others are going ‘Are we meant to be laughing?’ Then suddenly it gets massively dark.
What’s the thrill for you in scaring audiences?
Peter: One of the great joys of doing a stage play is being able to see the audiences react. If you’re sitting there reading one of my books I can’t see you reacting other than when maybe you make the odd facial expression, but theatre is going back to the early roots of storytelling. I just love sitting and watching an audience, seeing what they’re laughing at and particularly what makes them jump. For some reason I’ve discovered I’m good at scaring people, but there’s a difference between safe-scared and nasty-scared – and by the latter I mean fears of a terrorist bomb or fears of ISIS and all the dark stuff that’s going on every day in our newspapers. That’s different to the kind of fear you get from a ghost and scaring the bejesus out of an audience. In a way it’s a warm, great thrill. I think ‘Why do I like to be scared?’ goes right back to when you’re a baby in a pram and the first thing a lot of adults do is they peek in and go ‘Boo!’ We get a kind of thrill out of pitting ourselves against safe danger. When you go on the ghost train you pit yourself against all of the monsters it’s going to throw at you, then ‘Bang!’ the doors shut behind you, you’re back out in daylight and the world suddenly seems safer. I think that’s also why people love crime novels: you get taken on a journey but somewhere in that story you’re always in the safe hands of the detective who’s going to solve it.
Shaun McKenna adapted both The Perfect Murder and Dead Simple. What has most pleased you about the results?
Peter: We’ve been very lucky with Shaun. He’s a great playwright. Funnily enough he adapted one of my favourite books, Therese Raquin, for the stage – which is a story not entirely dissimilar to this one. It’s about a couple who fall in love and it involves murdering somebody’s wife in order for them to be together, then the wheels fall off. Having had the experience of doing a beautiful adaptation of that play, he came with a fundamental understanding of this one. He does get relationships and my stories are at their heart all about relationships. The Perfect Murder is about a couple who have grown to hate each other and Dead Simple has the basic theme of: ‘Who can you really trust in a relationship? When the chips are down can you even trust your best friend or your fiancée?’ So I think Shaun is fantastic at writing relationships and he’s got what I call the common touch, which I think is so important. An important part of all storytelling and all theatre is relationships. That’s why people read books or go to the theatre or watch movies – it’s to see what happens to people they become intrigued by and care about, even nasty people. A lesson I learned long ago is that you’ve got to love all your characters, including the villains. History’s greatest and most enduring villains are actually people who fascinate us, like Lady Macbeth. Count Dracula is a monster but he has some class and style. Frankenstein’s monster says to his master ‘I didn’t want to be created, you made me’. And in The Silence Of The Lambs Hannibal Lecter is a monster but actually we’re quite endeared to him because it’s a story that changed the lines from good versus bad to bad versus evil in a sense. I think we are fascinated by the dark side of people but in order to be fascinated we’ve first got to like those people.
How involved are you in the adaptation process?
Peter: I’m involved at every stage of it. I work very closely with Shaun, which has been wonderful because I’ve had film and television adaptations where I’ve actually wondered if the writer had even read the book. But Shaun is just fabulous. He’s reluctant to change a single word without my sanctioning it. I completely trust his judgement. We’ve had some good discussions but we’ve never had a fallout or an argument.
Have you tried your hand at adapting any of your books for either the stage or screen yourself? Or would you like to try it?
Peter: No I haven’t and no I wouldn’t. It’s a different skill set and I’m full of admiration for anyone who can do it. The Perfect Murder is a novella rather than a novel but Dead Simple is 120,000 words and condensing that into a play script that is less than 20,000 words is quite an art. Also, when you’re writing a book you haven’t got a producer hanging over your head saying ‘You can’t have that car chase’ or ‘You can have one police officer but not ten’. Shaun is a magician at somehow reducing the quite big canvas of the novella of The Perfect Murder down to a play.
Have there been any changes since the 2014 production?
Peter: We were really happy with the script. It did evolve a little bit as we went along but essentially no. One member of the cast – Simona Armstrong, who is just beautiful in it as the love interest for Victor – is the same. It’s interesting because we had two different principal casts in 2014. We began with Les Dennis and Claire Goose, then on the second tour we had Robert Daws and Dawn Steele. Each of them brought a different dynamic to it. Les played it wonderfully but with a slightly more comedic touch. Robert played it equally wonderfully but with a much darker touch.
Why do you think the story works so well on stage?
Peter: I think partly it is because of the tightness of the time frame, the location – a very clever set indeed, and the huge range of interactions between a small cast – of five. What always works best in theatre is when something is in a contained environment. The novel itself basically takes place in the house of Victor and Joan Smiley, their rather sad little house that they both thought they’d long since have been gone from to something much grander. Although in the novel it moves around a little bit to a police station and a massage parlour mostly it stays within the house.
Are Victor and Joan based on anyone you know?
Peter: I always base characters on people I’ve known – but luckily they seldom recognize themselves! Since writing the originally novella I’ve met quite a number of people who absolutely to me are Victor and Joan, just with very small modifications. [Laughs] But they haven’t yet contacted me to say I’ve stolen their identities.
The Perfect Murder comes to Northampton’s Royal and Derngate theatre from Monday March 14 to Saturday March 19. For tickets call the box office on 01604 624811 or visit www.royalandderngate.co.uk. It then goes to Cambridge Arts Theatre from Monday March 21 to Saturday March 26. For tickets call the box office on 01223 503333 or visit www.cambridgeartstheatre.com. The tour finishes at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre from Tuesday March 29 to Saturday April 2. Tickets for the show can be booked by calling 024 7655 3055 or visit www.belgrade.co.uk.