Writer: Frederick Knott
Director: Anthony Banks
Can you ever get away with the perfect crime? That’s the question posited by this new production of Dial M for Murder, Frederick Knott’s 1952 play, first shown on BBC Television that same year, but made famous by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film adaptation. Tonight’s press night performance was prefaced by an announcement about potential technical difficulties affecting the lighting and sound cues. The cast and crew needn’t have worried; Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design and Lizzie Powell’s lighting worked perfectly throughout to create an atmospheric production, filled with rising tension.
Tony Wendice (Tom Chambers) has married his beautiful, rich wife, Margot (Diana Vickers) for her money, and when he discovers she has been unfaithful, his mind turns to murderous revenge; months in the planning, he arranges a perfect alibi for himself and blackmails a small-time criminal to carry out the murder for him. Unfortunately, things go awry – although not in the way you expect – as Tony becomes more and more entangled in a web of his own making.
As Tony, Tom Chambers is outrageously sinister from the outset; it is very obvious that this is a man on the edge. Every smile is just a little too wide, every glance just that little bit too lingering, every word spoken dripping with faux pleasantries. It is a performance reminiscent of Christian Bale’s in American Psycho (no distant relation to another famous Hitchcock film), and one that feels a little too obviously unhinged, particularly in the play’s opening scenes – it feels hard to believe that neither Margot nor her lover, Max Halliday (Michael Salami) would pick up on Tony’s unnerving behaviour. It is, however, testament to the strength of Chambers’ performance that Tony is immediately so unlikeable, putting the audience on edge whenever he is onstage, and it is a performance that truly comes into its own in the play’s second half, as the net closes in.
Diana Vickers gives a good performance as Margot, particularly in the scenes after the attempted murder, though her dialogue feels clipped and somewhat stilted throughout. Her chemistry with Salami works well (though their opening dialogue feels rushed and tricky to understand), and in later scenes, we really feel that Max truly cares for Margot and is determined to save her from her fate. Christopher Harper puts in a strong performance in the dual roles of Captain Lescate and Inspector Hubbard. As Hubbard, he provides the play’s moments of comic relief, which, whilst executed well, feel unnecessary and break the tension in places, which is a shame in a character such as Hubbard, who is really the straight man. All this to say, the play’s final fifteen minutes are a masterclass in building suspense – to be expected of a thriller of Hitchcockian proportions – as Hubbard, Margot and Halliday slowly untangle Tony’s web of lies to see the truth for themselves.
David Woodhead’s set design is beautifully executed, with large windows and classic furnishings, though the impact of certain moments is lessened by the positioning towards the back of the set, in the kitchen area. Anthony Banks’ direction of the transitional scenes works brilliantly alongside Lizzie Powell’s lighting and Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design and music, suggesting the passing of time, as morning moves to evening, and weeks pass.
This is a slightly uneven production, with aspects that work extremely well and others that fall a little flat, however, it is still an enjoyable night at the theatre, and if you love a good, tense thriller, you could do a lot worse than this one.
Runs until 30 October 2021 and touring