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Dial M for Murder

by on 16 January 2020

Blackmail and Brandy

Dial M for Murder

by Frederick Knott

Simon Friend and Gavin Kalinat at Richmond Theatre until 18th January, then on tour until 18th July

Review by Andrew Lawston

It’s a stormy night in Richmond, perfect for an evening of blackmail, deception, and murder. Frederick Knott’s Dial M for Murder, made internationally famous by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film adaptation (from Knott’s screenplay), plays out almost like an episode of Columbo. The audience knows the truth behind a murder from the outset, and the play becomes a suspenseful psychological thriller as the question becomes how, or even if, the true culprit might be unmasked.

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This production at Richmond Theatre updates the play’s setting slightly from the 1950s to 1963, and this is mostly reflected in the stylised décor of the spacious set that depicts Tony and Margot Wendice’s comfortable flat, as well as in the stylish and well-cut costumes that generally emphasise the characters’ physicality. Both set and costumes were designed by David Woodhead, and as a result they complement each other well. The set is full of details that inform the audience’s view of the characters before the play even begins: a shelf of tennis trophies can be seen very much on display, but not prominently, and several of them look tarnished and neglected, or are partially hidden behind other bric a brac. The record player’s lid is kept open throughout, suggesting heavy use. Pride of place is given to a drinks trolley, and indeed characters make themselves drinks almost constantly throughout the show. These are all neat and thoughtful touches that make the set look like a real home for much of the play.

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Dial M for Murder is the story of Tony Wendice’s scheme to have his wife murdered in order to inherit her money, a scheme that goes very wrong. Wendice himself is played by Tom Chambers in a wide-ranging performance that is charismatic enough that you can never truly hate the character, despite his ruthless scheming. His Wendice is a charming host, and maintains a convincing façade as a devoted husband. Sally Bretton shines as Margot Wendice despite her character often being more of a plot device than a real person. Michael Salami makes the most of his part as TV writer and Margot’s love interest Max Halliday (who’s recently returned from New York, where he wrote a murder a week for a full year), and provides real energy to a very wordy script.

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The cast is rounded out by Christopher Harper, in a dual role as Captain Lesgate, a petty criminal in an audaciously unconvincing fake moustache, and Inspector Hubbard, a deceptively placid detective who unravels, together with Max, Tony’s deadly plot. Harper was undoubtedly more effective as Inspector Hubbard, but was highly engaging in both roles.

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The performances are uniformly strong, despite a few night stutters and jitters, and the play moves at an assured pace. For a play in which the action hinges on such minute details as the position of latchkeys, mud on the parquet, and the whereabouts of stockings, there was however one curious choice.

After Tony Wendice has coerced Lesgate into murdering his wife, in a scene where he establishes his alibi by leaving for a party with Max, Lesgate could clearly be seen crossing the stage behind the French windows, and could be seen taking up position behind the curtain and waiting for several minutes in order to carry out his attack. This was confusing for many in the audience as Wendice’s plan, and subsequent dialogue, made it clear that he supposedly entered through the front door. It was unclear whether the curtains should have been closed and we weren’t supposed to have seen him (the spectacle of Lesgate sneaking through the door and tiptoeing behind the curtain might have looked awkward). Or whether there was a problem backstage and he simply used the alternative entrance. Perhaps it could even have been a deliberate piece of misdirection on behalf of director Anthony Banks. In any case, it seemed to be a slip that caused some audience confusion in an otherwise assured performance.

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With a naturalistic set, stylish period costumes, and brutally realistic fight sequences courtesy of Alison de Burgh, this new production is a slick, taut, thriller that provoked much engrossed conversation among audience members as we all filed back out into a dark and stormy Richmond night.

I ought to make the shameful admission that I’d not previously seen the play or film of Dial M for Murder, and so I was genuinely and completely gripped by the psychological drama that unfolded as Tony’s lies began to unravel, slowly but surely, throughout the second half. I was almost certainly in the minority in the auditorium with that omission, however, and it certainly seemed that familiarity with the material had made no impact on the audience’s enjoyment.

Andrew Lawston
January 2020

Photography by Manuel Harlan

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