Review - Rebus: A Game Called Malice
Updated: Feb 15
Queen's Theatre Hornchurch
Playing until 25th February 2023
Ian Rankin and Simon Reade
A dinner party concludes with a murder mystery game created by the hostess. However, the guests have secrets of their own. John Rebus, a retired inspector is among the guests and he is playing an alternative game, one to which only he knows the rules.
John Rebus (John Michie), a retired inspector and protagonist of Ian Rankin’s series of detective novels, opens the story by narrating the scene, a game of murder mystery for the guests after the dinner party. The story revolves around numerous characters, some appear physically on stage and others merely referenced, but each one of them adds something to the overall story.
Director Robin Fefvre makes effective use of echoes and a dimly lit set to mark Rebus’s dramatic entrance, who openly states that he is at the party with an agenda of his own. As the story focuses on solving a mystery, I shall refrain from disclosing too much to avoid spoilers. The set designed by Terry Parsons is glamorous and capitulates the essence of an upper-class townhouse.
The audience is introduced to the other four dinner guests: Jack (Billy Hartman), a casino owner with friends in higher places; Candida (Emma Noakes), Jack’s much younger girlfriend and a self-proclaimed successful influencer; Stephanie (Emily Joyce), a good friend to the host of the party and a lawyer who defended Jack in a previous case; and Paul (Forbes Masson), the second husband of Harriet (Rebecca Charles), the owner of the townhouse and the party host. The cast members are all experienced actors, having appeared on both TV series and the stage over the years. Needless to say, they all gave a convincing performance of their respective roles. However, whether these characters are entirely needed and add to the story is a whole separate issue. Having written many popular books, short stories and a few stage productions in his career, Ian Rankin, is well versed in spinning tales that attract the readers. However, the formula used in longer and more detailed published work and series of books don’t always translate well to the stage and Rebus: A Game Called Malice is one such example.
This play itself is about eighty minutes, excluding the interval, and so the amount of material that can fit into the production is limited. Appreciate Writers Rankin and Simon Reade’s efforts to set the scene and plant the seed for the audience leading up the story’s conclusion, there are simply too many characters and intertwining plots for each single character and story to shine. While only six characters appear on stage, five other names are introduced, with varying degree of importance and it is questionable whether a name needs to be given to a person on the other side of the phone, does not make a physical appearance and has no further involvement in any of the stories before and after that call.
This story also suffers from pacing and priority issues. While the description suggests that a murder mystery might be the focus of the show, that is far from the truth, it is a merely a vehicle to draw out the secrets of the individual characters. In fact, the murder is introduced well after the half way point of the story. Before that, the dialogues are purely focused on small talks and scene setting, with a lack of excitement to entice and keeping the audience engaged. Rankin and Reade create an apparent disconnection between the older party guests and Candida, where modern day slangs can be misunderstood or lost in translation. One such example used by Candida actually perfectly sums up this story. It is sick, but not in a good way as the younger generation of audience would interpret.