When we think of Dial M For Murder we recall the Hitchcock film starring Grace Kelly and Ray Milland but we should remind ourselves that it was originally a well-crafted thriller by one Frederick Knott, made into a BBC TV production and subsequently, a hit West End and Broadway play.
Dial M.. is not so much a ‘Who Dunnit’ as a ‘Will they get away with it’ thriller as we know full well where culpability lies from the off. It is instead an intense two hours of tension building and character unravelling as events escalate from marital secrets and lies into attempted murder, false imprisonment and ultimately Inspector Hubbard’s sifting, Columbo like, through it all to enforce justice.
At the heart of the play is the dark underbelly of the marriage of Sheila and Tony Wendice and the effects of lies, deceit and betrayal that result in its demise. It is the dark psychology of a marriage which, although polished on the surface, has always been rotten at its core. We learn that she innocently married for love whilst he calculatingly married for convenience and money. His coldness forced her to look for a lover who could give her the warmth and love she craved.
The lack of sexual lustre and warmth in the marriage is palpable despite Tony’s seemingly recent transformation into a ‘model husband‘. Because of his change Sheila puts her lover, Max, to one side. The problem is, Tony has learned all about this affair and seeks to punish and destroy her, inheriting her money into the bargain, with what he conceives is the ‘perfect murder’. However his carefully mapped-out intentions go awry as his old school friend Captain Lesgate, blackmailed into doing the deed, bungles it and ends up dead himself in the struggle with Sheila. Cue Tony having to revise his plan and devise a new set of lies.
There are brilliantly executed moments of humour woven in the dark script as Sheila’s ex-lover Max (played by Philip Cairns), himself a murder mystery scriptwriter, attempts to save her from the gallows by thinking up an alternative story for the police. In the event he accidentally unravels the exact process by which Tony had plotted and carried out the intended murder. “I’ve been writing this stuff for years!” He says.
Special mention should go to the set design and soundscape which work perfectly together to build a brooding, throbbing, claustrophobic hub of tension and evil intent. The stage set is a dark ‘Noirish’ blood red murderous backdrop with minimalist 50s furniture and props that only exist to further the plot (my companion suggested that they could expand the minimalism to include a hat-stand given the amount of coats left on the back of the sofa!)
You can almost hear your own blood pumping in the attempted murder scene: which, even in these days of close up CSI gore and explicit violence, is quite shocking and uncomfortable to witness. It will make you want to hide your scissors forever in a locked drawer.
Stand out performances emanate from Daniel Betts as the cold and calculating yet powerful Tony who plots out the events like a murderous chess game, Kelly Hotten as the hapless victim who delivers a very believable 1950’s love-lorn housewife and Robert Perkins as Captain Lesgate as the slightly dodgy unwilling accomplice to murder. Meanwhile Christopher Timothy as the methodical Inspector Hubbard and Philip Cairns as Max Halliday felt a tad two dimensional and lacking in power and gravitas when compared to the other central performances.
In some ways, as with the Hitchcock film, you need to view the action through the goggles of the time in which it was written in order to appreciate the plot and what may seem in this day and age implausible policing methods and deduction. Also in form the play is top heavy– with much of the action in the first half the second half as the denouement is much shorter as a result and feels a little strange and short lived.
On a positive note: this production of Dial M For Murder is a well-spent evening in the theatre. Put aside the Hitchcock film adaptation and treat it as a very different animal. With the well thought out theatrical audio visuals and setting in place- Dial M is back on stage as the dark and brooding murderous unravelling of a marriage it was ever conceived to be.