Dial M For Murder – King’s Theatre

Written by Frederick Knott

Directed by Anthony Banks

Let’s admit one thing; if at one time or another you haven’t concocted the ‘perfect’ murder – you’re likely the one to worry about. How we would get away with it, tying the loose threads together to ensure no slip-ups or the lavish costumes involved – we’ve all thought it up. Dial M for Murder, a classic of thriller cinema, an Alfred Hitchcock staple, has been adapted to the stage from Frederick Knott’s screenplay to welcome a fresh audience into atmospheric theatre. Or perhaps in Anthony bank’s take, a new kind of Carry-On Killing.

Upon discovering his wife’s affection for another man, Tony Wendice goes beyond the immediate aggressions of murder, and into a cold, sinister plan to blackmail someone else into doing the dirty work. Planning each detail, ensuring the plan cannot fail, things go array as his wife Margot changes her routine, setting off a chain of events.

Rooting for the killer, depending on the scenario, has the makings of a sinfully delicious narrative. Excessive, slimy, yet endearingly appealing, much of the production’s over-the-top vibe can be traced back to Tom Chambers performance, Christopher Harper a close second. Here is where a division may occur for the audience, where the line between Hitchcock thriller strays into farcical. Chambers early passion for dance, clear from Strictly Come Dancing and Top Hat continues into Dial M, with his dance training reinforces the spider-like cunning of Wedice’s role. Every strand he weaves cannot be plucked without his know-how. He calculates every occurrence, and Chambers lives for the enjoyment of the character, even if he is seconds from a vaudeville cackle or moustache twirl.

Quite the reverse – subdued, Sally Bretton has a tempered outlook for Margot Wendice, the target of husband Tony’s plan for murder. Perhaps the closest to authentic performance, Bretton deserves credit for grounding the otherwise cartoonish aspects of the production. Possibly, though, Banks’ direction should have stabled the ground, rather than having two talented performers playing characters from two entirely different genres of drama? Despite Bretton and Chambers chemistry, indeed her connection with lover Max (Michael Salami) is palpable too, there feels odd mashing of characters where they are from the shared narrative, but entirely different productions.

Guilty of this difference in performance styles, even for obvious reasons, Christopher Harper’s dual role as both murderer Captain Lesgate and detective Inspector Hubbard leads to an intriguing twist where Lesgate, the crook, with his moustache, exuberant accent and dress comes across as the more three-dimensional. Hubbard, while comical and engaging, occasionally strays from detective into a clown. Dipping a toe into Pink Panther inspiration, Harper exaggerates but refrains from an entirely animated performance. Using the space well, it is the climax where he gains command of the stage, encompassing the stage design into his characters broad movements.

Staging is everything for a production such as this, capturing the right aesthetic can make or break the immersion. Notwithstanding a few time inaccurate details, David Woodhead’s stage design is angular, sharp and toys with perspective. The angular structure especially accentuates Lizzie Powell’s lighting, allowing marvellous nods to the original film’s use of intimidation and shadow. Truly its only flaw is how stagnant it feels, how little flexibility there is.

Components of Bank’s production are gems, ready for the taking, but seem scattered in varying directions. Dial M for Murder is neither a comedic killer nor a thrilling laugh. It lands halfway between a pastiche of classic cinema, and a sitcom re-telling. Intentional or not, it works, Knotts’ narrative makes for a delightful evening which may not have been what one would expect, but unexpected surprises are often the most welcome.

Dial M For Murder runs at The King’s Theatre until February 29th. Tickets available from: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/dial-m-for-murder

I Think We Are Alone – King’s Theatre

Written by Sally Abbott

Co-directed by Kathy Burke & Scott Graham

Six people, with everything, yet nothing in common, skirt on the edges of one another’s lives – some of them perfect strangers, the occasional taxi ride all they may share. Others are family members – sisters who haven’t spoken in years. I Think We Are Alone is a poignant production on a longing reconnection with echoes of our lives. That no matter how hard we attempt to augment fragility – often it is this unexpected strength in admitting weakness which can be our saving grace.

Attempting to communicate the complexity of human sentiment is a difficult task, maintaining coherence, is more challenging. Being blunt – Abbott’s text will put some off. Indeed a significant amount may not find an attachment with the monologue driven narrative, which clunks, rather than clicks into motion.

However, if one is to connect with this bittersweet examination of the mortal condition, you may locate the depth of Abbott’s script. Our paradoxical need to remain steadfastly defiant, while drinking the poisonous needs we set out for others, preaching our disdain for social media, yet giving in to its infectious chirping. Frantic Assembly lay bare much of our hypocrisies this evening, though perhaps spreading their coverage thinly.

Humour, the first-line defence for uncomfortable situations is Abbott’s strength in the production’s arsenal – along with her brazen ability to string monologues which cut to the heart of the human condition. Additionally, Abbott captures our desire to reclaim a connection with the echoes of our pasts, to triumph over an eternal enemy; regret. Whether this is with the departed, siblings we haven’t communicated with, or more powerfully self-regret.

For each member of this resolute cast, they treat their story as an individual piece, only really tying them together in the second act. For Chizzy Akudolu this squarely lands her as the production’s strength in forging a connection with the audience, her natural delivery builds rapport and enhances the charisma she shares with Andrew Turner and son Manny (Caleb Roberts). Striking an additional accord with the audience is Charlotte Bate’s Ange, a young hospice carer and the estranged sister of Clare. An instant connection, hers is the instantly recognisable feature of Frantic Assembly’s 25-year career infusing movement with stage-work. Her physical movement, flowing as her form blasts against Paul Keogan’s lighting.

Edinburgh’s Polly Frame finds herself an (arguably) beating heart of this narrative. Her gradual descent, with a sudden plunge, is all too relatable in the desperate signs often ignored. As too, is the brief but appreciated relationship between Turner’s Graham & wife Bex, played by Simone Saunders. With minimal stage-time, Saunders leaves an impact on her development and macabre twists of comedy, but there’s still more there to explore.

And this might be the key drawback for some, that just as you attach with a role, it’s viciously ripped away – the connection severing slightly. Abbott’s decision with the script is a bold one in areas, reliant on an engaging cast to ensure audience attention. Luckily, under the co-direction from Kathy Burke and Scott Graham, this cast ensures a dedicated level of intrigue into Abbott’s growing narrative, leaving just enough threads to tantalise, if tripping a few audience members.

As these threads begin to weave together in the production’s closing, they occasionally tidy too neatly, too BBCish for our liking, but there is an interesting resolution of sorts for the two sisters. Which leads to a few choices words and moments completely subverting the outcome one may expect, throwing up a final barrier between the two, and a sure sign of talented writing in its own right.

Re-enforcing these barriers, Morgan Large’s transparent, clinical set design serves as an elaborate board for the cast to manoeuvre around. Fluid choreographed, I Think We Are Alone communicates its emotional narrative transitions with movement, the wheeled-barriers ensnaring characters, doubling as suicide jump-spots, beds and on a metaphorical level, rise and fall as characters bonds grow or collapse.

Shackling ourselves to a chain of memories, desperate to move on, self-destructively we hold the key to the very locks which restrain us. Polarizing, I Think We Are Alone will divide audiences, which suspicions arise maybe part of Abbott’s goal. Just as we often refute our regrets and failures, so too can we look beyond our resolute ambivalence to catch a glimpse of a tenderness which, if allowed, can shatter barriers and gracefully warm predispositions.

I Think We Are Alone runs at The King’s Theatre until Feb 22nd. Tickets available from: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/i-think-we-are-alone

Trojan Horse – Traverse Theare

Written by Helen Monks & Matt Woodhead

Directed by Matt Woodhead

Re-writing history is a debate worth extending, clarification, however, is a necessity – particularly when evidence comes to light which demonstrates political obsession to pervert the public opinion, using education as a vulnerable tool to stoke hatred. In 2014, Trojan Horse was the term thrown around for the ‘reports’ of the radical promotion of Islamist propaganda in three of Birmingham’s high-performing schools. LUNG theatre, in association with Leeds Playhouse, taps our shoulder to gently remind us that fake news is old news and that we still haven’t caught on to government’s brand of scape-goating propaganda.

Intense, Trojan Horse has little time in handholding the audience through the too-recent history for Muslim families, teachers and students within British communities. Translating over two-hundred hours of interviews, numerous public documents and accounts of public hearings into an attention-grabbing full-length production are far from an easy task. Across the classroom and whirling to the courts, the trials and secrets of those involved are looked at through an artistic lens, with a dose of healthy humour thrown in. 

Who can blame them at pop-shots at Michael Gove, former Secretary of State for Education? There’s quite a queue. At the heart of it all is a vendetta, a pursuit of truth and opportunity to expand on what has been a headline led story. Restraining overflowing aggression, Trojan Horse reflects on the events of 2014 through playfulness, brief movement direction and storytelling mechanics, rippled with fact. While appealing to our displeasure in the treatment of Muslim teachers in the community, it avoids pandering and leaping on the all too easy option of offence. The key strength of Trojan Horse is that it doesn’t feel the need to exaggerate or lie.

Infusing a school construct in design, Rana Fadavi’s set is clean, five wheeled desks serving as a variety of locations. The production is keen to promote those listening in Urdu, the video projection of Will Monk’s blackboard aiding with the production’s accessibility and breaks up the ‘chapters’. Detracting momentarily, the projection is occasionally over-used, bloating the stage when the performances and writing are considerable enough to hold attention without flashing text.

For really, as tight as Monks & Woodhead’s script is, it is the cast and Woodhead’s direction which compact Trojan Horse’s emotion into a direct pin-point assault. This is the form of production where emotional outrage, while justified, could easily tip the scale, but a balance is achieved. Points are put across by characters in an assortment of means, taking on multiple roles as students, teachers, parents and the occasional version of real0life councillors or committee members involved, particularly Komal Amin and Qasim Mahmood for their accents, physical transformation and capability of conveying class-attitude with minor touches.

Then Mustafa Chaudhry offers a solidifying moment for Trojan Horse, a point of humanity which tests the audience. Refraining from hushing a character’s thought on LGBTQI+ communities, Chaudhry controls the audience to still connect with the role, even if the revelation of his intolerance would otherwise remove our sympathy. It’s a testament to the writing, and the relationship Woodhead has with his cast, but it speaks especially of Chaudhry’s talent. 

The manipulation of media is nothing new, but the indoctrination of division within small family communities has been a growing concern. Monks & Woodhead demonstrate that the tactic is a readily used one, it’s only now the tactics are becoming apparent, no sense of fear or punishment for those perpetrating, but with catastrophic changes for those in the firing line.

Photo credit – Ant Robling