Writer: Frederick Knott
Director: Lucy Bailey
Reviewer: Pete Benson
Dial M for Murder is a murder mystery play written by Frederick Knott which was then thrust onto the international stage by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film starring Ray Milland and Grace Kelly in the lead rôles. Even though the play is now over sixty years old, the director Lucy Bailey does a nice job of giving this production a contemporary feel without unbalancing its own time period.
The imaginative versatile set is predominantly red with a minimalist suggestion of a furnished flat. A long red flowing wispy curtain hangs from a large circular cut-out within a red ceiling which is manoeuvred throughout the production to various effects. At times as the curtain travels the stage also revolves with it shifting our focus. Within this setting the five actors intrigue us with their skilful story telling.
Daniel Betts plays quick witted, gold digging husband Tony, giving him a lovely cold arrogant air. His unfaithful wife Sheila is played by Kelly Hotten. It is very much a play of two halves for Hotten. Sheila is vivacious and animated before tragedy strikes turning her into an introverted uncertain wreck of a woman giving the character an engaging on-stage journey. Philip Cairns plays her lover Max, a sometime writer of crime thrillers. This gives Knott plenty of room for irony and playful critique of the very genre he is working in. Robert Perkins plays the stereotypical upper-class rotter but he is hardly the arch villain of the piece. Perkins does a nice job of letting his character’s facade crumble in front of us as Tony delightfully picks him apart. Well into the production we meet Inspector Hubbard portrayed by Christopher Timothy. Timothy plays Hubbard as a bluff no nonsense character but makes us feel that there is always more to the man than we see before us. He is reminiscent of TV detective of Columbo. Indeed this whole play could be a forerunner of the Columbo formula.
All the actors give excellent performances serving this fine play well. The writing is outstanding. Even while he is establishing character and background Knott’s writing is sharp and engaging. He sets us up at times and plays with us. He draws us in and then wrong foots us. He doesn’t rely on coincidence nor do his characters make great intuitive leaps. Everything is logical and well placed.
Generally the direction is good, the blocking is interesting and there are some nice set pieces, particularly a violent strangling scene. All this is enhanced with evocative sound effects and atmospheric, bluesy music with a noir feel to it. Occasionally the blocking is a little bit out front to the audience and the lighting a little clumsy. There is one absurd moment when after a desperate search for a vital object a stressed Tony finds it but then throws it in the air and catches it in triumph. I can only presume this was so the slower members in the audience don’t miss the significance of it. The lighting is moody and atmospheric but at times it is a mess and inconsistent when it should be unobtrusive. We are in a flat, the text and acting are good: just let us see the players.
All in all an excellent production. If you don’t know the play you are in for a gripping treat. If you do know it you will enjoy the artfulness of the writing and the mostly excellent production values.
Photo: Manual Harlan | Runs until 12th April 2014