THE play transports us back to a post-World War II age of trilbies and chic dresses, Habitat-style decor and dial-up telephones (surely they were black – this was blood red). Stage and film action was often slower and less frenetic, but the build-up of atmosphere and tension could be masterful.
In Dial M For Murder we get a good old-fashioned dose of who-dunnit – or rather, as we all suspect from early on just who is going to murder whose wife, it’s a why-dunnit, and how.
The complex relationships between the three main characters set the scene – the former professional tennis player (why did he suddenly turn affectionate a year ago?), his wealthy wife M (why did she leave her lover a year ago, and why do you get hints of dread?), her ex- lover who turns up after a year and is surprised by the husband’s friendliness. The overt displays of marital affection and undercurrents of fear and malice are chilling.
The whole action takes place in the sitting room of the couple’s flat in Maida Vale. That must have been a challenge when Alfred Hitchcock transferred the original TV play and stage show to the screen in 1954. Here very clever stage design enables the single setting to add to the intensity of the drama. The walls are a deep red (blood red?), and at times of tension the central stage begins to revolve very slowly, a long wispy curtain gently billowing, suggesting Margot’s sense of life falling apart – and disorienting the audience too as the furniture seems moved. Lighting is wonderfully evocative, the room often full of sinister shadows, while occasional light jazz music contributes to the light and shade that underplay the atmosphere.
While the first half of the play sets the scene, enacts the murder and ends with the police apparently happy with their criminal investigation and the imminent death by hanging of the convicted person, the second half is edge-of-the-seat suspense as the ex-lover and the detective unravel the truth.
It must be a challenge to step into the shoes of Grace Kelly, who played the wife in Hitchcock’s film version. Kelly Hotten doesn’t falter in the role, her outward charm barely concealing hidden tension. Daniel Betts as the chilling husband, cunning and ruthless, and Philip Cairns the ex-lover are able rivals for her affections. Robert Perks is great as the small-time criminal who is blackmailed into dark deeds. And Christopher Timothy is excellent as the seemingly unimaginative but, finally, smart chief detective – a far cry from his ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ days.
This tense tale of intrigue and mystery is well worth the retelling, especially in this imaginative new production.
Dial M For Murder continues at Aylesbury Waterside Theatre until Saturday, April 12.