REVIEW: David Tennant Excels In Chilling Drama The Escape Artist

The Escape Artist, the latest drama by Spooks creator David Wolstencroft, is set to delve into the morality running through our legal system and ask whether the egos of those in place to uphold the law become more important than justice itself.

In the first of three episodes Wolstencroft crafts a spiralling, Hitchcockian descent into dark horror. His protagonist, Will Burton, played adeptly by David Tennant, is dragged from a comfortable and stable way of being into an uncertain world where he is forced to question the very principals of his professional life.

The beauty of David Tennant’s portrayal of defence barrister Will Burton is that he gives a character who is believably both a loving family man and a ruthless legal animal. He could have been an unfeeling, hard-nosed glory seeker: to the frustration of his professional rivals, particularly Maggie Gardner (Sophie Okonedo), he has never lost a case, snatching freedom for clients whose guilt seems certain – hence the nickname ‘The Escape Artist’. And he’s clearly quite keen to keep this record unblemished. As a result Will’s career is on a seemingly vertical trajectory. He is cherry picked by solicitors and is expected to be applying for Silk. And yet Tennant gives us a Will that is ordinary and likable, a brilliant man who still can’t manage to start the family dishwasher . He has a loyal wife and a bright son who ground him. Home is perfect – well, homes, there are two, a smart London flat and a remote country retreat - and Kate (Ashley Jensen) is there to provide laughs and love, to help him find that work-home balance and to slip an apple into his pocket when he forgets to eat properly. And with this being a David Wolstencroft drama the audience can expect that a shadow will quickly be cast over his idyllic existence.

That shadow comes in the form of Liam Foyle (Toby Kebbell), a social misfit who is accused of the horrific and ritualistic murder of a young woman. His home is essentially an aviary, a cramped space filled with cages. “Everybody’s hungry” he chirps to his charges as they gaze back at him, stone-eyed. He is so detached from the magnitude of his acts that he even requests the arresting officers to return after his breakfast. Will is handed the high profile case and it is here that he starts to question whether his much quoted tenet “Everyone deserves a defence” still holds true. The evidence against Foyle seems overwhelming; he even admits himself, “I’m not a very nice person”. There are chilling scenes between Will and Foyle in which it’s very clear who has the upper hand in their relationship. “You know, it’s funny,” Foyle drawls at their first meeting. “The more time we spend together, the more you remind me of me.” Will barely manages to rein in his repugnance for the man. He is certain that Foyle is guilty, and Foyle sees that certainty written all over his face. It’s a fine, subtle performance from Toby Kebbell who plays the killer in a steady, almost understated manner that oozes menace. It is hard to tell what Foyle is thinking and consequently what is in store for Will.

But Will, of course, cannot allow himself to lose. When he frees Doyle on a glaring instance of reasonable doubt that the prosecution have failed to spot it’s reasonable to expect this unpleasantness all to be over. Will has, once again, been unbearably clever, although not necessarily morally correct. He can go back to his perfect wife and child, where beaming Kate, hiding a pregnancy test from son Jamie (Gus Barry) tells the boy that soon there will be a surprise. But when Will fails to shake Doyle’s hand following his acquittal it is on this beat that the whole tone changes. The subsequent scenes are tightly written, and hard hitting as the tension rapidly mounts up. In other hands it could be too corny for words: the remote cottage, the vulnerable woman and child, the helpless hero, the face at the window, looming out of the dark… The concept of a nice relaxing bath will certainly never be the same again. Wolstencroft deftly ensures that the tragic event which follows is still a shock, an event that leaves Will – and the audience - reeling. And if this is just the start of Foyle’s personal campaign for vengeance, what else is in store?

In a last twist, Foyle, arrested on a second charge of murder, selects Maggie as his defence barrister. Will is repulsed: Maggie, who knew the victim socially, would actually defend the man who is probably her killer. But for ambitious Maggie this is just another opportunity to progress her own career. There is no moral question. And for Will, the circumstances of the trial are doubly distressing. He not only has to relive his own personal loss, but he also has to consider Maggie’s actions held up as a mirror to his own professional ethics.

David Tennant is having, it has to be said, an incredible year. Already he has a number of highly praised TV dramas under his belt: Spies Of Warsaw, The Politician’s Husband and of course the sublime Broadchurch and he is currently receiving huge acclaim for his performance in the lead role of The RSC’s Richard II. Can he keep the momentum going? On the evidence of this episode, without a doubt - he excels here and proves his skill and versatility almost effortlessly.

There are two more episodes of the Escape Artist left to view. If they of the same standard as the first, then this will easily become one of the dramas of the year.

Find out more about the drama here

The Escape Artist continues at 9pm on BBC One on Tuesday 5th November