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