Dark Road: Cop Drama Meets Psychological Thriller


Dark Road, a show from Ensemble Theatre Company, tells the story of a retiring police constable reinvestigating an old serial killing case that’s been haunting her for years. So it’s a cop procedural. But the production capitalizes on the higher attention span of a theatre audience in order to explore the constable’s doubts and her ambition. So it’s a psychological thriller.

Isobel McArthur, Scotland’s first female Chief Constable, prepares for retirement. For extra money, McArthur begins to write a book about her life. Says her friend Frank in reference to McArthur’s ambition, “Scotland’s first female Chief Constable” is more of a newspaper headline than a book. We see the effect of McArthur’s ambition when, for her book, she takes up again a decades-old serial killing case for which she put an alleged killer behind bars: Alfred Chalmers. But Chalmers’ arrest wasn’t made until after the fourth victim, throwing a wrench into McArthur’s glory in her arrest. The more she dives into the case, the more she doubts her success in the arrest that put her into such a position of power and put a man in prison for twenty-five years.

The naturalism of a cop procedural—say, on TV—comes from the fact that there’s little need for imagination. You set up the scene in a bullpen, have the actors wear cop uniforms, and there you go. A cop drama in theatre can easily be hokey due to the incompletion of the set; the lack of film editing can expose the actors’ dress-up in a career they don’t actually have. I felt that in Dark Road, the actors’ convictions to their surroundings and to the case is what kept me so engaged. Not only was I impressed by the believable Scottish accents by every single one of the actors, but also how integrated the accent was to their performance. The accent wasn’t just tacked on; it felt like each actor had been Scottish their whole life.

The slowness of the first act and the introduction to McArthur’s life are just a setup for when the tenser second act starts. This dedication to characterization, and colouring McArthur’s world, are what distinguishes Dark Road from similar stories. This isn’t accounting for some of the scenes that may have been overwritten: particularly the beginnings and ends of scenes that should have been cut, which would have helped with the thriller pace of the show.

The more we care about McArthur, the more we excuse some of the cornier actions she takes and the play’s revelations. I instead interpreted it as grittiness and realism. That’s likely the values that director Chris Lam noticed in the script, and sought to emphasize in this production. Dark Road is written, alongside Mark Thomson, by famed crime writer Ian Rankin. Perhaps it would be unfair to keep alluding to Dark Road as a TV show with an extra slow burn that the TV medium might not allow. Perhaps it’s like a crime novel fantastically translated to the stage.

Dark Road plays at the Jericho Arts Centre in repertory with A Few Good Men and The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

Tickets: From $25 available online at


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