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Michael Harrison has it all - good looks, charm, a successful career and to top it all he is about to marry the most beautiful girl in the world.
But when Michael’s friends decide to pull the ultimate wedding prank, the groom-to-be finds himself buried alive in remote woodlands with absolutely no way of getting out.
But the joke backfires. The friends are involved in a car crash. Who is going to release Michael? No-one knows he is there! Detective Superintendent Roy Grace investigates Michael’s disappearance. The mystery deepens as the Detective unravels a tangled web of deceit. Grace begins to fear that Michael’s chances of survival are slim. And getting slimmer and slimmer with each passing moment…
Following on the success of THE PERFECT MURDER, The Mill is delighted to produce another edge-of-the-seat thriller by bestselling UK crime author Peter James.
Certain to jangle the nerves, DEAD SIMPLE is nail-biting drama from beginning to end. Book your tickets today...if you dare!
Click here to read an introduction about DEAD SIMPLE – from book to play – by its author, Peter James.
What makes us afraid? Many years ago I asked an eminent psychiatrist, the late Dr David Stafford-Clark (who was the original BBC TV psychiatrist, (appearing weekly in a tuxedo in the 1950s!) this question. The answer he gave me surprised me. I’d been expecting him to say spiders or terrorists, or cancer, or any of a number of things so many us do fear. But instead he said it was the fear of being alone. Alone in the world. Unable to communicate with a soul. Friendless and unloved.
I’ve thought about this many times since, in my quest throughout my writing to tap into people’s deepest fears. In coming to write the novel of Dead Simple, I was able to combine this with another very deep and seemingly universal fear – that of being buried alive.
I remember reading Edgar Allen Poe’s story, The Premature Burial, as an impressionable child. Always very claustrophobic, this story instilled a terror in me that turned into something of an obsession – a period of intense research into the whole subject of whether premature burial was really possible, or just an urban myth. Out of it came my much earlier novel, Twilight, in which rapping sounds are heard coming from the fresh grave of a young, pregnant woman who has just died… and out of it came the seeds of a short story about a wedding stag night prank that goes wrong, leaving the groom buried alive and all his friends dead in a car crash, that was eventually to become my novel Dead Simple.
Publication of this book startled me. It became, seemingly overnight, a global publishing sensation, being translated into 36 languages, and becoming a No 1 bestseller in numerous countries around the world. Clearly it had touched a nerve in many people, and my publishers and I have been analysing it ever since to try to understand the deep chords it touched in people – and of course to replicate it.
One key element was that of love and trust. How much can any of us really trust our friends? Even our best friends? Even our loved ones? What does it take for those we consider our closest friends to turn against us? Or worse, those we believe we love?
The other element is that of premature burial. I had not realized, when I first penned the novel, just how deep a nerve this would touch. Two years after Dead Simple was first published I had an email from a bookseller in Hamilton, New Zealand, telling me that a customer who had bought the novel had come back into the shop three days later saying, urgently, “You have to tell me if he gets out of the coffin, otherwise I can’t read on!”
The horror of premature burial has deep historical roots. There are many anecdotes of the graves of soldiers being opened up, decades or even centuries later, to find scratch marks on the coffin lids. In Victorian times, undertakers would regularly offer an optional extra to have a rope inside the coffin, attached to a bell, for up to two weeks after burial, so that if the unfortunate ‘deceased’ should wake up, they could pull the rope and be rescued. It is, arguably, where the expression ‘Dead Ringers’ comes from. As well as the expression, ‘Saved by the bell.’
Some years back, during my research into the topic of premature burial, I met a New York pathologist who told me this horrific, but darkly humorous story: A NY lawyer, in the Bronx, collapsed and was certified dead during a summer heat-wave. The mortuary he was taken to had all its fridges full, so he was left on a gurney overnight. In the morning he was wheeled into the autopsy room, where the pathologist stood over him, while the mortuary assistant made the first incision on his scalp, in order to peel it back to expose the skull. As the scalpel touched his skin, the lawyer sat up and grabbed the pathologist by the throat. The pathologist dropped dead on the spot from a heart attack. Following a triple heart-bypass the lawyer is still practicing to this day!
Another story I love is much closer to home. About ten years ago, Elsie Sweetman (on whom Cleo in my novels is modelled) was called out in the middle of a freezing February night. A courting couple, walking along a beach near the Palace Pier in Brighton, had called 999 after seeing the body of a woman washed up ashore. A police surgeon called out had certified the young woman was dead, and she was duly recovered to the mortuary in the Coroner’s van. Elsie sent the rest of her team home, intending to tidy the woman up by removing the seaweed from her body and hair and put her in a fridge overnight, until a post-mortem was done in the morning. She left the woman on a trolley and went to make a cup of coffee. When she returned, the woman was sitting up, looking bewildered, and said, “Where the f*** am I?”
What had happened was that the young woman had taken an overdose of barbiturates and jumped off a groyne. Barbiturates slow the heart rate down. This combined with the freezing temperature had reduced her heart rate to two beats per minute. The attending doctor had held her pulse for twenty seconds and found nothing…
By far the scariest part of my research for Dead Simple, and the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life, was being put in a coffin! I am a stickler for research, and to make the book authentic, I needed to recreate the sensation of being buried alive in a coffin. So I asked a Brighton firm of undertakers – a small family business – if they would let me do this and they kindly obliged! But when I turned up, there was a very elderly gentleman – the grandfather – telling me all the rest of the family were out on business. I asked him to let me lie in a coffin, then for him to screw the lid down, so I had no possible escape, and leave me for 30 minutes. Prior to doing this I had spoken to a coroner and to another medic and asked how much air there would be inside a coffin. The coroner told me that if it was well-made and airtight, there should be enough for three to four hours – unless I hyperventilated, in which case I could knock that down to forty minutes, or so.
After the old man had finished screwing down the lid, I began to panic… what if he crossed the road to get a Starbucks and got run over… what if he dropped dead? It was the longest and worst thirty minutes of my life. But it helped me write a novel that I love…. to death!
I’ve been thrilled to bits by the audience reactions to my first ever play, The Perfect Murder. I hugely hope you will enjoy the twists and terrors that are about unfold in front of you even more!
"Dead Simple has more twists than an Alpine road. Terrifying!"Henley Standard
A START to freeze the vitals followed by a string of butt-clenching incidents — Dead Simple has more twists than an Alpine road and quite a few characters go over the edge before the end of this enjoyable murder-mystery.
The Mill at Sonning has taken on a second adaptation of a Peter James novel which manages to be comic and serious at the same time. It’s a complicated story, but always exciting and followable.
It’s Michael Harrison’s stag night and his old chums get their own back on him for past misdemeanours by putting him in a screwed down coffin covered over with corrugated iron in an isolated wood.
So far, so terrifying!
They go off to a club for a couple of hours. But their transit van crashes on the way and they’re all killed, leaving poor Michael trapped in the coffin with no one knowing where he is. Makes you go cold, doesn’t it?
A really good start then, and everyone feels queasy at the thought. To reveal any more would give away the story but look out for treachery, greed and opportunism.
Can we trust any of the characters to be who we think they are? Yes, thankfully, the doughty Detective Superintendent Roy Grace and his sidekick Detective Sargeant Glenn Branson — they’re the good guys and doggedly go about sorting all this out.
The comic value comes in the probability that any of this might happen — highly unlikely but not impossible.
Every twist and development could happen and director Keith Myers makes sure it’s all played dead straight. The actors transmit no irony or knowingness, so we can believe it — at least for the two and a half hours of the show.
One of the complaints about novel adaptations for the stage and film is that they strip things down too much and leave out what makes the story so compelling. Shaun McKenna has tried to avoid that with his reworking so that all the character traits, nuances and triple-plot layers remain.
The pace is helped by a clever and effective set design from Alex Marker which delivers three locations simultaneously without crowding the Mill’s space.
The result is that everything is there if you’re prepared to look. There are no sudden surprises — the many twists are discreetly signalled so that you get them a microsecond before they’re revealed. That way we enjoy the shock value and pat ourselves on the back at the same time.
Afterwards we can return to reality and reassure ourselves that it would never happen — but it could.