When it comes to classic murder mysteries and suspense thrillers, Frederick Knott’s Dial M for Murder sits firmly in the Hall of Fame. Though perhaps not technically a murder mystery – in the sense that we see the murder in question planned, set-up, executed (if you will), and subsequently botched, all with the full knowledge of who is responsible for it – it still has all the right ingredients to place it firmly within the genre, whilst also offering enough divergence to stand out.
In fact, it’s this somewhat unique narrative construct that makes the play so enticingly suspenseful and delightful to watch – we know what the killer intended, we know how it turned out, but will they get away with it? It is this looming question that makes the story one that has gone down in history and seen numerous interpretations on the stage and silver screen alike.
This particular production, directed by Anthony Banks, has a history of its very own. It premiered in London in January 2020, and after an early finish and lengthy time away (in no small part owing to a certain global pandemic), it returns here for a short, two-venue tour from Manchester’s Lowry to Malvern’s Festival Theatre. Also returning are the original cast, including Strictly winner Tom Chambers and X-Factor finalist Diana Vickers as central couple Tony and Margot Wendice.
The ‘reality tv’ star status of Murder’s principal cast may initially put some prospective viewers off, perhaps suspicious of ‘poster-over-performance’ style casting. However, when it comes to Chambers, these concerns can safely be put to one side. There is, admittedly, a moment near the start of the piece, where Tony is gliding and dancing around the flat, where you question whether it’s in Chambers’ contract to show off his natural affinity for graceful footwork. However, while this instance remains a slightly questionable directorial choice, it ties into Chambers’ interpretation of the character as a whole. This Tony isn’t the typical 1950s straight-talking professional of Dial M history, but is instead imbued with an off-beat quirkiness. With a smattering of campness, giddiness, and a forced smile for the ages, Chambers sells this new take on the character with great skill, accuracy and gusto, and it only succeeds in making the laughs acerbically funnier, and his sinister turns gleefully juicier. By the end of the production, it’s a great success.
One of most enduring thrillers of all time, one of Dial M for Murder‘s most iconic incarnations is in the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock film, starring Grace Kelly and Ray Milland in the lead roles. Writer Frederick Knott returned to pen the film’s screenplay, two years after Dial M first debuted as a play for BBC Television.
The same degree of success cannot be said, unfortunately, for Vickers. With an aesthetic quality that sits comfortably in the shoes of Grace Kelly presented through a slightly more contemporary filter, she undeniably looks the part. However, Vickers’ speaks in an often stilted and awkward manner, often buttressing her words with gesture or exaggerated facial expressions, as opposed to genuine emoting. The overall effect is a slightly forced, rehearsed performance, which, in the context of the piece, is a real shame, with Margot being the most sympathetic character in the story who should provide the audience’s way in to some of the emotional investment in the narrative.
“Harper’s Hubbard is playful, yet sincere, and it is his magnetic watchability that the second half of the production really thrives on…”
Thankfully, the slack is picked up elsewhere, with the real stand out performance of the evening being that of Christopher Harper, in the classic double-casting of Captain Lesgate and Insepctor Hubbard. Harper differentiates the two characters with such nuance, you find yourself momentarily doubting whether they are played by the same actor at all. His Lesgate is intimidating and measured, providing a joyfully confrontational rapport with Chambers’ Tony, but it’s in his performance as Hubbard where he truly shines. Gone is the traditional, An Inspector Calls-style trope, replacing croaky-voiced, cynical intellect aloofness with a young, slightly awkward, very endearing young man, who is motivated by a sense of purpose and goodwill. Harper’s Hubbard is playful, yet sincere, and it is his magnetic watchability that the second half of the production really thrives on, not only selling some of the more expositional passages of dialogue (which naturally come hand in hand with the genre) with ease, but also selling it all with a pacy gumption that is a true delight to watch.
Ultimately, it is this essence which makes the show the thrill and joy to watch that it is. David Woodhead’s costume and set design are exquisitely constructed to pop with colour and style, and Banks chooses the right moments to bathe the piece in strobe neon lights and rocky music. The show is sexy, and it knows it, which only makes it all the more lovable. Banks knows the formula for classics such as Dial M, and he successfully balances where to lean into the sinister, providing the audience with the edge-of-the-seat thrills they came for, and where to let his performers and his audience revel in the sleek and swooping story that make it an undeniable pleasure to watch. No matter how hard you try, that final, stare-at-the-door moment is one that never gets old, and this production pulls it off, capturing the heart of what Dial M for Murder is, and making it an undeniably delectable, compelling thriller.
Commanding great turns from Chambers and Harper, Banks keeps all the classic ingredients and adds a few garnishes of his own, glossing over some of the weaker elements to successfully make Murder the thrill that it should be.