Theatre Review: Dial M for Murder

Dial M for Murder Master

62 years after its premiere in London’s West End, Frederick Knott’s Dial M for Murder is continuing to thrill theatre audiences with an exciting new production directed by Lucy Bailey on tour in the UK.

Starring Christopher Timothy (All Creatures Great and Small) as Inspector Hubbard, Dial M for Murder is an intense, dark and erotic tale of betrayal, passion and murder.

The story centres on the unhappy marriage of Tony and Shelia Wendice. Convinced his wife is having an affair, Tony plans a seemingly perfect murder… until it falters in the most unexpected way.

The story was adapted for film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1954, starring Grace Kelly and Ray Millard, although few remember it as a stage play.

“I had no idea that such a play existed until my agent Penny Wesson urged me to read it,” comments director Lucy Bailey, whose directing credits include The Postman Always Rings Twice.

“It’s a real page turner – the characters felt intensely believable. It was erotic, tense and terrifying – I had to direct it!”

I had the pleasure of reviewing Lucy Bailey’s adaption of the gripping thriller when Dial M for Murder visited Manchester’s Opera House on 6 May. The production is halfway through a UK tour and is due to start a five night stint at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre on 20 May.

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If you’re expecting a large production, however, you’ll be in for a shock. Mike Britton’s set design has been stripped to a bare minimum with just a chair, sofa, writing desk and small bar on view in the living room apartment of Tony and Shelia. The result is very effective with his minimalist design adding to the drama by forcing your attention on the characters.

“The challenge is to reveal what’s going on beneath the polished surface – not to get too naturalistic and reverential – to be more David Lynch than Hitchcock!” says director Lucy Bailey.

In order to release the static confines of a solid room, the set rotates 360 degrees during intense scenes, playing with the perspective of the audience. A jazz soundtrack also slowly fades in during tense moments to add to the suspense.

Chris Davey’s excellent use of lighting is of particular note, with a low spotlight providing the only setting for key scenes such as Shelia’s trial. The famous murder screen was also particularly frightening with Davy’s lighting effects exposing a daunting shadow on the wall to accompany a choking soundtrack which makes your own throat feel tight.

The real gems, however, were the actors, particularly Daniel Betts as Tony Wendice. In sharp contrast to the emotionless husband played by Ray Milland in Hitchcock’s 1954 classic, Betts excellent portrayal of Wendice showed Tony’s hidden desire to punish and destroy his beautiful wife. Kelly Hotten as Shelia Wendice and Christopher Timothy as Chief Inspector Hubbard, were also equally impressive.

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My only criticism was lack of sexual chemistry between Shelia and her lover Max Halliday, played by Philip Cairns. The attachment felt a little forced at times and seemed to lack the ‘naturalness’ which is referred to by Tony earlier in the play. Despite this, Kelly Hotten pulled off a superb performance as the wealthy wife torn between love, duty and blackmail.

Dial M for Murder heads to Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre on the next leg on its tour, with visits to Aberdeen, Cardiff, Truro, Cambridge and Glasgow following next month.

4 out of 5 stars

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