Dial M for Murder
A revived production of 50s thriller Dial M for Murder is a winner, grabbing you by the heartstrings and not letting go.
Director Lucy Bailey presents the gripping drama in a style that makes her contemporary audience gasp – but still haunts the bleak days of post war Britain. The play may look like a fun murder mystery piece of escapism, but what emerges by the end is a portrait of egoism and evil, seen - unusually - from the inside.
The play by a young Frederick Knott began as a failure rejected by five London theatres. It looked as if his original idea - a unique insight into the mind of a murderer, had failed. But in 1952 the BBC snapped it up, it became a West End hit, next filmed by Hitchcock with a 24 year old Grace Kelly in the lead.
Now the famed West Yorkshire Playhouse in conjunction with Colchester Mercury have revived the thriller for a touring production, showing at Cambridge Arts Theatre from 17-21 June and Glasgow Theatre Royal from 24-28 June.
The audience at Cambridge Arts Theatre on 17 June sat silent and rapt through a tense production. The play had the claustrophobia of a one room, one set production, an atmosphere that simply doubled the tension. This is no Agatha Christie style crime drama, where the audience stays in the dark until the final revelation ends the puzzle. In this sharp, deep and complex drama the villain is all too clear. Frederick Knott reckoned the core of his drama was its seriousness – and the audience held its breath as its glamorous anti-hero lied and plotted and planned his way towards the perfect murder.
The play opens in an urbane flat in fashionable London. Two lovers, Max and Sheila, reunite after a year’s separation: he has been away in the United States working as a hack writer – with a specialism in crime. Clearly still in love, they both accept that Sheila’s husband Tony - an international tennis player -has turned over a new leaf, and Sheila wants to give her marriage another go. Tony arrives, all affable bluster and persuades the once-lovers to go out together -, he claims he has work to do, - something we know is untrue. It’s the first we see of Tony’s manipulative mind at work. He has a plan and he’s worked it out with audacious precision.
Suddenly we plunge into a darker infinitely more sinister world. Despite his friendly exterior, Tony knows all about his wife’s infidelity. With the help of an old acquaintance whom he invites round to blackmail into connivance, Tony plans to murder his wife.
Kelly Hotten is brilliant as the beautiful, sad but optimistic wife. She disappears off to the theatre with Max Halliday, played with hunky brio by Philip Cairns - as back at the flat, the unwitting accomplice, phony Captain Lesgate is inveigled into an ugly plan. Robert Perkins as the ex-public schoolboy turned shifty conman with a series of petty frauds on his tail, is wonderfully convincing as he finds himself bribed and bullied and blackmailed into compliance with the determined Tony.
Daniel Betts gives the intriguing role of Tony a devastating spin. The entire play hinges on his cool, unfeeling pursuit of money. When she dies, Sheila will leave him a fortune. We watch in horrified fascination as the full cold hearted precision of his plan unfurls. Tony is devoid of passion, he resembles, as played by Daniel Betts, Shakespeare’s Iago, a man with a sense of his own entitlement to a comfortable life, and a man with a plan to get it, whatever the cost. A Wimbledon Champion now restlessly retired, Tony has a heart of ice. And he can act. When he breaks down in convulsive sobs, a more contemporary, star sportsman comes to mind. Human nature does not change.
Tony is a conman and he has it all worked out but when the plot goes badly wrong his fast moving mind adapts with cruel cunning and only canny Inspector Hubbard, played with convincing subtlety by All Creatures Great and Small star Christopher Timothy stands between his malevolent scheme’s success - and justice for the innocent.
The play’s set was exceptional. Designer Mike Britton with technical manager Nick Bryan should take full credit for the shifting perspectives calculated to enhance the sense of disorientation in the play – we don’t know where we are. There are fabulous nail-biting twists in the plot. When the victim Sheila finds she is suddenly suspected as the murderer, her shock and confusion is echoed brilliantly by the shifting sets - and the sinister red curtain of unknowing that rotates around the room.