Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘Dial M For Murder’, which is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre until Saturday 17th May 2014
Fredrick Knott was a calculating man. Before he wrote this, his first, play he worked out the perfect plot for a three act West End hit, determined the ideal scene lengths and just how long individual speeches should be for maximum effect.
Watching it now, 60 years later, you feel you are being led by the nose by a Master. The twists and turns are tantalizing but clear and you are always cunningly kept in two minds. Is the villain’s plot falling apart – or did he mean it to happen this way?
I was also pleasantly surprised by how much laughter there was in such a dark story.
Knott’s cast list provides us with an equally calculating copper and a highly imaginative murder mystery scriptwriter. So when the Inspector asks questions that knock down the baddy’s lies, or when the writer suggests a fictional scenario identical to the one we’ve just seen happen, it’s remarkably funny.
Sheila has been having an affair. Her husband Tony discovers it and pieces together an elaborate, but ultimately believable, revenge plan, It’s the perfect murder, providing everyone behaves to type. However Max, her secret lover, makes a living out of solving murders and Inspector Hubbard is not as orthodox as appears. So the barometer of suspense steadily rises, underscored by some throaty musical rumbles, and played out on a stylised red revolving set with a vast see-through wall and swirling curtains. We are in a time of trilby hats, one-pound notes and rotary dial telephones.
Director Lucy Bailey and her commensurate cast bypass Hitchcock’s film and dig deep into the psyche of a “fashionable three cornered relationship” and the torment of knowing-but-not-telling. Daniel Betts is a breath of frozen air as the schemer. He’s exceptionally good at acting out ‘acting’. Noel Coward was drawn to his character because he barely opens his mouth without lying.
Kelly Hotten is superb as the infatuated women, trying desperately to control her emotions. Her death struggle with her silent assailant is so dangerously choreographed (by Philip d’Orleans) I actually feared for her safety. And the late entry by Christopher Timothy as the credulous copper brings a grounded sanity to proceedings. He occupied a territory somewhere between Dixon of Dock Green and Hercule Poirot, with a touch of Wycliffe in his voice. You could almost hear the cogs spinning round.
Does crime ever pay? In the opening scene, discussing how to write a best-selling murder mystery, Max opines that even the most meticulously planned murder will have a tiny loose thread hanging from it. And it’s the picking of that thread that makes this such a compelling evening.
Coward loved it. Hitchcock shot it. Bailey works wonders with it. Go and see it.
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