Photo: Manuel Harlan
“Everything about the production is carefully crafted to cast you back to a bygone age.”
Here’s a piece of trivia you might not know: before it got the Hitchcock treatment, Dial M For Murder was already a popular West End play. This elegant revival is keenly aware of that heritage, displaying an impressive attention to detail as it recreates the story’s post-war milieu. Everything about the production – furniture, costumes, sounds – is carefully crafted to cast you back to a bygone age: a time when phones made funny clicking noises, men sank brandies before hopping in their cars, and everybody wore their waistbands astonishingly high.
The script’s distinctly old-fashioned too, especially in the opening scene, where the characters plonk themselves down on sofas to reminisce about the back-story. But Mike Britton’s striking set design lends the production some stripped-down modern flair: an iconic bright-red telephone is matched by a looming bright-red curtain, behind which the titular murderer duly hides. Hanging from a circular rail, the curtain creepily rotates all round the set – a constant reminder of the blood that’s been shed, and of one particular character’s all-too-obvious guilt.
The stage rotates as well – a creative approach to what could have been a very static play, though the overall effect is sometimes more disorientating than it is disturbing. A few shifts in tone are confusing too: the protracted murder scene feels wilfully overblown, in curious contrast to the generally slow-burning mood. But there can be no reservations about Mic Pool’s eerie soundscape, whose portentous jazz riffs have the power to make even an empty room utterly enthralling.
Christopher Timothy – well-known for his TV roles – offers a reassuring presence in the form of Inspector Hubbard, melding the homely normality you might find in Midsomer Murders with an unexpected hard-nosed urgency in the later scenes. The role doesn’t offer him many opportunities to stand out, but it’s a finely-nuanced performance which does much to anchor the rest of the play. The acting honours, however, truly belong to Daniel Betts, whose villainous Tony Wendice is a masterpiece of smooth malevolence. Betts’ performance is as sleek and oily as his swept-back, Brylcreemed hair.
If the truth be told, Frederick Knott’s 60-year-old script isn’t quite as masterful as you might have been expecting, and a few of its crucial plot points defy rational analysis. But as long as you don’t think too hard about it, you’ll find this a comfortingly faithful production – which is slow out of the starting blocks, but accelerates smoothly towards an exciting, brain-teasing conclusion. It may not be Hitchcock, but it’s a good solid play. Dial K for King’s and book your ticket now.
Reviewer: Richard Stamp (Seen 18 February)
Find information and book tickets here.