Dark Road: don’t feel compelled to go down it

In Dark Road, Isobel (Rebecca Walters) and Alfred (Paul Herbert) duke it out in the murk of moral ambiguity.

In Dark Road, Isobel (Rebecca Walters) and Alfred (Paul Herbert) duke it out in the murk of moral ambiguity.

A crime thriller, Dark Road feels much more suited to television than the stage. And, if it were on television, I’d turn it off. (The production is strong, but that’s not my point.)

In Dark Road, Isobel McArthur, the first female Chief Constable in Scotland, is about to retire after 30 years on the police force. She’s considering writing a book about the case that made her career 25 years earlier. Isobel helped to convict Alfred Chalmers of murdering four young women who received abortions at the hospital where he worked as an orderly. Alfred has been incarcerated ever since, but Isobel is not convinced that he is guilty; Alfred was convicted on the basis of flimsy forensic evidence—and that evidence has gone missing.

Isobel’s doubt festers in the context of other forms of moral ambiguity. Her pals, Frank and Fergus, who also worked on Alfred’s case, are deathly opposed to Isobel’s proposed book. They argue that Alfred’s mind games will fuck them all up as thoroughly as they did when they were pursuing him. But are Frank and Fergus covering something up? At home, Alexandra, Isobel’s 21-year-old daughter, is rebelling against her mom—who, she claims, was never really there for her when she was a kid—by having a lot of noisy sex when her mom is around. Alexandra is also struggling to establish her independence by making her mark as a documentary filmmaker.

Unfortunately, it takes forever for the script, which was co-written by crime novelist Ian Rankin and theatre director Mark Thomson, to set itself up—partly because it gets stuck in a loop: Isobel keeps dithering about whether or not she should write her book and her pals keep warning her against it.

When the plot finally gets down to business, some elements work. There are hallucinatory sequences, brought to us courtesy of Isobel, who is a drinker. In those passages, which are satisfying in their theatrical artifice, Isobel encounters a murder victim named Sarah, argues with Alfred, who may have strangled Sarah to death, and encounters a mysterious fox-headed figure.

And there are moments in the climax that are chilling.

But the plot turns on some truly dopey devices including the abject stupidity of one of the characters, an unlikely overlap of interests, and the late introduction of a convenient but unbelievable character late in the game.

All of that said, under Chris Lam’s direction, there’s some fine acting in this Ensemble Theatre Company production. Rebecca Walters, who’s playing Isobel, has the teensiest tendency to illustrate, to show us that her character is thinking, for instance. But Walters mostly rides a clear and naturalistic groove here. Paul Herbert does an excellent job of exploiting the audience’s uncertainty about whether or not Alfred can be trusted. And, playing Alexandra, Alysson Hall serves notice that she is a player to be watched. In a scene between Alexandra and Frank (the persuasive Anthony Santiago), who used to be her mother’s lover, for instance, Hall fills her character with all sorts of complexities, including a loving kind of defiance and a defensive sexuality.

Lighting designer Patrick J. Smith heightens the drama—with some stark side lighting, for instance. And director Lam’s sound design intensifies audience anxiety with its high-pitched thrumming and police-procedural swoops.

Those swoops are also a cliché, however. And they remind us of the shallowness of the material.

DARK ROAD By Ian Rankin and Mark Thomson.Directed by Chris Lam. An Ensemble Theatre Company production at the Jericho Arts Centre on Saturday, July 28. Continues in rep until August 17.

Tickets. 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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