The Times - "Plays" magazine; August 23, 2003; Daniel Finkelstein

Pick of the Week - "Without Reason"

Though it is an enjoyable drama, something about Alibi seems false, believes Daniel Finkelstein

I must admit that I have done some pretty foolish things in my life. Not long ago I left my keys in the kitchen and shut the front door, locking myself out of both the car and the house. It was, unquestionably, a stupid thing to do. Nevertheless, I am constantly amazed by the incredible depths of idiocy to which characters on screen sink. Most dramas have what I call an Essential Moment of Stupidity (EMOS). When the EMOS arrives, one of the cast does something truly moronic and the rest of the plot follows. The choices that they make at such points are usually ones that I find baffling.

If I were plotting the destruction of the world, for instance, and I had James Bond at gunpoint, I wouldn’t delay pulling the trigger while I set out my plans in detail. I would never borrow money from Tony Soprano, an arrangement that can end in only one way. And, unless I was pretty sure I was the hero of the film, I would not climb on top of a moving train as it approached a tunnel.

That, of course, is just me. You may be different. Let me give you a test.

You are a waitress at a stranger’s party and at the end of the evening you discover you have left your bag behind. You return to the house to find the host heaving a dead body across the lounge in the dark. He spots you and chases you upstairs where, quivering with fear, you lock yourself in the bathroom. There is a lot of garbled talk through the closed door in which, like an adulterer caught in bed with his lover, he protests that things aren’t quite as bad they look. Then he says that he will call the police and tells you to go.

At this point do you a) Leave, dash to a safe place as quickly as you can, call the police and then tell them everything you know, or do you b) Leave, then think again, turn around, go back to the house and offer to provide the stranger with a false alibi, thus embroiling yourself in a criminal conspiracy for no apparent reason? Now, my answer would be a) but, as I say, that’s just ever-so- cautious me speaking.

Marcey, one of the two central characters in Paul Abbott’s two-part drama Alibi, chooses b). Her choice is the EMOS on which the whole of Abbott’s edifice rests. There follows more than two hours of twists and turns, set to the obligatory jangly music with cliff-hangers before each commercial break.

With Abbott’s usual tight script and two wonderful central performances from Sophie Okonedo (Marcey, below) and the ever-reliable Michael Kitchen (Greg, the stranger with the body), watching Alibi is a diverting way to spend a couple of hours. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Yet something held me back from losing myself completely in the programme and I think that something was the EMOS.

To be convincing an EMOS doesn’t have to be something that would happen in real life. Indeed William Goldman, the screenwriter for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid among other films, argues that sometimes a cinemagoer might find real-life less credible than a well-executed piece of fiction. The bizarre true story of how Michael Fagan made his way into the Queen’s bedroom would be thought ludicrous by an audience willing to swallow whole the absurd plot of Mission: Impossible.

Yet, while I didn’t require Alibi to be absolutely true to life, I did want at least some sort of explanation, even a weak one, of why Marcey got herself involved in the first place. I watched to the end and the explanation never came.

As Marcey plotted Greg’s alibi he worried that her lies would be suspected by the police. “Look,” she replies impatiently, “I don’t know you. Why would I lie?” I thought that was a rather good question.

Copyright 2003 Times Newspapers Ltd