The Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch has opened its Spring 2023 season with the world premiere of Ian Rankin and Simon Reade’s Rebus: A Game Called Malice. John Michie plays retired detective John Rebus, who just happens to be a guest at a dinner party in a very posh house where a rather unfortunate incident occurs upstairs.
Performances that range from lack-lustre to annoying
The others present are played by Rebecca Charles, Billy Hartman, Emily Joyce, Forbes Masson and Emma Noakes. The meal is over, but the wine is still flowing. The hostess has devised a murder mystery game set in a comparable stately home. The guests have their information sheets and in snippets of conversation, amongst other postprandial small-talk, they consider what have been established as the key elements of any investigation: means; motive and opportunity. Rather irritatingly they consistently refer to it as playing charades, even though they have already said it bears no resemblance to that game.
Back stories and antecedent trifles that expose elements of their lives fill the remainder of Act 1 and indeed much of what follows after the interval. If the game is in some way meant to inform the main story, it doesn’t and with nothing happening in respect of a real detective story let alone a murder mystery we are left waiting until the last line of Act 1 to be told that something has happened in the house. (No spoiler here, although it is tempting to say what it is if only to add some momentary excitement to a heretofore dull scenario.) We head to the bar for a much-needed livener in the hope that the case will get underway, the mystery will unfold and investigations can reveal all.
However, the back stories now become increasingly complex and rather mind-boggling. In a novel, with time to take everything in and pour over the pages, they might prove comprehensible, but crammed into a short second act the flow is far too thick and fast to fully digest all the connections between people and events. Rebus takes control in classic detective fashion. He calls the police, but we never see them. On arrival he escorts them directly upstairs and he reports to the room what they are doing, which is less than gripping. As more secrets and past machinations are revealed the somewhat disappointing story of what happened is finally revealed, but it's certainly not a journey that has sent us ‘hurtling towards a gasp-inducing conclusion’ as promised.
With performances that range from lack-lustre to annoying there is some comfort to be had in admiring the furnishings of the the drawing room, designed by Terry Parsons and lit by Matthew England. Even here, however, the tasteless excess of paintings over books, is questionable, even though they have a subplot of their own.
The adaptation fails as a captivating story and with such flawed raw material, director Robin Lefevre leaves us sitting back wondering what on earth Rebus: A Game Called Malice is all about rather than on the edge of our seats filled with suspense.