Rebus in Northampton makes for a disturbing, dark and witty whodunnit

Lily Canter reviews Rebus: Long Shadows at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton
Cathy Tyson and Charles LawsonCathy Tyson and Charles Lawson
Cathy Tyson and Charles Lawson

A moody, murky murder-mystery shrouded in mist awaits the audience at Royal and Derngate this week in the Ian Rankin stage adaptation of his eponymous detective.

Always haggard and usually drunk, John Rebus is the flawed Edinburgh police officer who frequently bends the rules and pays a personal price for doggedly righting wrongs.

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Dragging Rebus into the modern world, Long Shadows is a reflection of the societal changes during his turbulent career, where derelict brownfield sites have become luxury apartments whose residents are glued to their iPhones.

The antihero, created by author Rankin in 1987, has appeared in books, radio and television for three decades but Rebus: Long Shadows marks his stage debut.

Rather than adapting one of his existing 19 books, Rankin has developed an original story with Scottish playwright Rona Munro, which places a bemused Rebus in retirement unable to fathom the changing world he inhabits.

Haunted by two historic murder victims, Rebus unofficially bludgeons his way through the unresolved cases in a bid to put his own demons to rest.

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The plot in many ways is a classic whodunnit and the hints are dropped quite heavily making the two main reveals fairly easy to guess in advance. What is more satisfying is the character study of Rebus whose acid tongue is a dark delight, laced with wicked one-liners.

Coronation Street star Charles Lawson, best known for his role as angry Northern Irishman Jim McDonald, spits his way through a remarkable performance completely inhabiting the near broken Rebus physically and mentally.

It is hard to believe that just one month ago Lawson suffered a mini-stroke on stage in Edinburgh whilst performing the role. Supporting him is Games of Thrones star John Stahl (deliciously villainous) and Band of Gold actress Cathy Tyson (solid but unexceptional), the devil and angel on Rebus' shoulders who he cannot navigate life without.

Mirroring his inner turmoil, the staging is dim and dreary, with a large curving staircase shadowed by a sinister archway underneath. From above and below, the two murdered girls enter Rebus' psyche driving him to seek justice despite his retirement from the force.

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Fans of crime fiction will enjoy this disturbing and darkly witty production which does not attempt to break new ground but instead offers up a customary detective story.

* Rebus: Long Shadows continues at Royal & Derngate until Saturday November 10. Tickets available at or by calling 01604 624811.