REVIEW: Peter James’ Dead Simple, Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, until May 2.

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A book in which the main character spends most of the time buried alive was always going to present a huge challenge for anyone wanting to put it on stage.

But it’s a challenge the company has risen to rather well - even if the stage version was never going to capture the claustrophobic horror of reading the novel alone late at night.

Split stage, plenty of darkness and a half-open coffin are among the tricks as the first Detective Superintendent Roy Grace book hits the theatres, helped immeasurably by a host of strong performances, particularly from Tina Hobley as Ashley Harper, the girlfriend left behind when Jamie Lomas’ Michael Harrison falls victim, apparently, to a stag-night prank gone horribly wrong.

Gray O’Brien as Detective Roy Grace isn’t remotely the Grace we imagine from the books - always the danger of staging something read by millions. But he makes the character come alive while Michael McKell adds plenty as Ashley’s uncle Bradley.

Put it all together and it’s a production which will joyfully lead you up the garden path repeatedly, which is of course the biggest part of the pleasure. Assume no one’s quite what they seem, and you still won’t see it coming in director Ian Talbot’s clever production.

It won’t challenge the belief that the theatre is the realm of plays, not adaptations and that books generally work best as books, but even so, there are sufficient chills and thrills to warrant the evening.

Phil Hewitt