Writer: Frederick Knott
Director: Anthony Banks
It says something about the quality of his writing that Frederick Knott only wrote three plays during his life, but was able to live off the revenue generated by them. Dial M for Murder is certainly his best known, and probably for the film version directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1954. But over 60 years later the play remains Knott’s tightly wound and intricately plotted masterpiece, to thrill and tease audiences.
Former tennis pro Tony Wendice (Tom Chambers) plots the death of his wife Margot (Sally Bretton) after discovering her affair with crime writer Max (Michael Salami). So far, so mid-century misogyny. What elevates Knott’s story are two factors. First, he tells us in advance how the murder is going to happen, making us both witnesses and collaborators to the act – and then he ensures that nothing quite goes to plan, so we find ourselves unwittingly on the side of the criminal, as he manoeuvres himself through ever increasing hoops to keep a story straight as the noose (literally and figuratively) tightens.
There is a playfulness to Anthony Banks’s production that is a little at odds with the text, to the extent that moments that should be high drama only elicit laughter from the audience. This strategy may help to avoid charges of melodrama, but actually serves to undermine some of the tension of the writing.
Tom Chambers has fun in the role of psychopath extraordinaire, but there is a little too much lightness and energy and desperation at the edges of his performance, and this touch of mania dilutes the cold control of Wendice as wife killer. Sally Bretton evokes a satisfying sense of trauma and shock as Margot, which stands out from the more comic aspects of the production and highlights how damaging the comedy is to the drama, while Michael Salami’s crime writer lover has a youthful exuberance that helps to dismantle some of the staid stuffiness of the domestic setting.
Christopher Harper deserves plaudits for doubling in the roles of both the blackmailed killer and the police inspector whose creative approach to pre-CSI forensics helps untie Knott’s knotty plot. As Inspector Hubbard he brings levity to a role that ought to be a figure of dogged logic, like Columbo with added sarcasm. But it contrasts well with his managed desperation as act one’s Captain Lesgate, who is at the sharp end of Wendice’s manipulations to make the leap from victim to killer (and ultimately back to victim).
David Woodhead’s set is a classy post-war London apartment, an accumulation of oblique angles and intersecting lines, with some nice minor details – the stone blocks of the garden paving outside mirror the herringbone of the parquet flooring inside. But Lizzie Powell’s lighting seems at odds with the naturalism of the set, and major moments such as the climactic killing take place in deep shadow. There are also small pieces of stage business which are key to the whole plot, but with insufficient light for the audience to really see them happening, there is a loss of tension when these small moments have big consequences in the second half.
Sexual subtext and – of course – the final resolution, with a small but satisfying twist that unlocks the story, are what elevates this above other boilerplate thrillers. A dramatic masterpiece in a production which would be stronger if it took itself a bit more seriously.
Runs until 29 February 2020 | Image: Contributed