It was an opportunist tweet by Richard Vergette to crime writer David Mark just over two years ago, that became the starting point to explore whether Mark’s popular detective Aector McAvoy, could be adapted for the stage. Last night Dark Winter, directed by Andrew Pearson opened at Hull Truck Studio: a groundbreaking finale for the 1oth Heads Up Festival.

Hull, East Yorkshire. Two weeks before Christmas an elderly man – the only survivor of a fishing trawler tragedy 40 years before – is found murdered at sea.

In a church, a young girl who is the last surviving member of a family slaughtered during the conflict in Sierra Leone, is hacked to death with a machete.

Dark Winter was David Mark’s 2012 debut novel, that introduced readers to Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy’s world. At the time bestselling author Val McDermid described it as, ’An exceptional debut from an exciting new talent.’ Since then the Lincolnshire-based author has written six in an increasingly popular crime series.

The new production by E52 of Dark Winter at Hull Truck Studio adapted by Richard Vergette and Nick Lane, sold out weeks before the festival even began, proof if needed that there would be a ready audience for it.

Dark Winter is a detective story commonly referred to as a ‘closed mystery’ where the audience are in the dark as much as the detective. It contains many crime fiction tropes that will be familiar to fans of the genre:  the cop who plays by his own rules, the hard-nosed boss, the bully… long seen as the building blocks of the police procedural.

The unusual aspect about this production of Dark Winter is that many in the audience will already know David Mark’s books: already have an intimate knowledge of his characters and plots. This prior knowledge and emotional investment presents a different challenge for the company.

Having not read any of Mark’s books – something I need to remedy – I found, once I had a handle on the chronology, and who the characters were, I could follow all the twists and turns in the story. I loved all the local colour from questioning a jazz singer in Pave; chasing drunks on Freeman Street; the response from Hull folk when McAvoy goes door-knocking; the references to local heritage blending reality with fiction.

The majority of the story is told retrospectively so a clear point of narration is established at the start, which allow the different strands to move freely. Having some of the characters then serve as narrators, makes for some dynamic scripting, as if two pages at different points in the piece, were placed side by side.

The extensive use of technology assaults the senses, the blending of moving and still images, projection mapping, a pulsating music score and sound design match the onstage action and enhance audience experience.

Was a mind blowing and surreal experience. It’s a bloody good play. David Mark

The portrayal of McAvoy the central character, is always going to be pivotal. In the books he is a giant of a man, all scars and a mop of red hair. Peter McMillan gives him all the inherent curiosity needed to be a good detective, more instinctive, following his nose rather than the rule-breaker cop he is purported to be.  Sarah Naughton as D.S. Pharaoh McAvoy’s boss, is sharp and tough, the no nonsense type but curiously, at the same time clearly has a thing for McAvoy.

Look out for a good helping of cop show gold from the abrasive D.I. Ray: shades of Gene Hunt from Iain Thompson but without the associated charisma.

Amongst all the grit and noir there is wit and warmth, in the shape of Roisin, played by Amy Thompson McAvoy’s rock of a wife.  With echoes of life imitating art and vice versa, the waters are further muddied by Chandler, a struggling writer in rehab over the river, played with bearish manner by David Schaal.

With a running time of two hours including an interval, Dark Winter is a gripping tale with lots to keep the armchair detectives on the edge of their seats. For theatre fans the blending of live action and cinematography poses intriguing questions for future storytelling.

Dark Winter by E52 by David Mark Adapted for the stage by Richard Vergette and Nick Lane runs until March 17 at Hull Truck Studio.

Michelle Dee

Production Photographs by Anete Sooda