Tuesday, April 23

Dial M For Murder – Theatr Clywd

The 1954 film adaptation, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, will always cast a long shadow in any staging of of this Frederick Knott penned masterpiece. It was a huge favourite of mine growing up, evoking Proustian memories of rainy, Autumnal Sunday afternoons in front of the family television; the film poster still adorns the wall of my study. Therefore, I was both excited and apprehensive making my way across the Welsh border to the beautiful and welcoming ‘Theatre on the Hill’ in Flintshire, to see the latest incarnation of this taut psychological thriller.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, Knott created more of a ‘Howdunnit’ than a ‘Whodunnit’. The audience are privy from the outset to the plan by suave ex tennis professional Tony Wendice (Tom Chambers), to murder his rich and beautiful wife Margot (Diana Vickers) and inherit her wealth. To this end, he blackmails Captain Lesgate an old school acquaintance (Christopher Harper) to perform the dirty deed. The ensuing bungled murder is investigated by the dogged Inspector Hubbard (Harper in a dual role after the interval), abetted by Diana’s lover Max Halliday (Michael Salami) with a satisfying resolution at the end of the 100-minute show. Despite this play being nearly 70 years old, the writing has stood the test of time remarkably well, few omissions and changes to the script were needed, the murder scene still shocked this modern audience, and you could hear a pin drop in the auditorium as the story reached its denouement. It is hardly surprising that Knott was able to live comfortably off the proceedings of this one play, it will continue to be a staple of amateur and professional companies far into the future.

Any misgivings I have with this production were centred around the directorial decisions and individual performances within the cast. Director Anthony Banks chose to update the setting of this play from 1952 to 1965, a decision which created as many issues as it did opportunities. Whilst it allowed him to explore the idea of a mixed-race relationship between Max and Margot (a dynamic not present in the writing) and allow the casual racism of Inspector Hubbard to stand out, the historical references necessary to the plot grated in this modern setting. It seemed an unnecessarily confusing change to make when a few minor alterations to the script would have made the same point with more subtlety. Similarly, the beautifully realised set by Designer David Woodhead was clearly a 1960’s bachelor pad, complete with The Beatles ‘Revolver’ playing, invoking sentiments from that period but jarring with the clear 1950’s ethos of the original. I understand that Banks was illustrating the quickly changing face of British society in the post-war period, but the culture clash was too stark to be convincing in what is a quintessentially British murder mystery.

Vickers was excellent, betraying none of her ‘X Factor’ origins or Lancashire accent, she carried out the role of Margot with an icy brittleness that was reminiscent of Grace Kelly in the movie version. Harper in the twin role of Lesgate/Hubbard was more convincing as the latter character during the second act, with his portrayal of the seemingly shambolic detective clearly having been influenced by 1970’s ‘Columbo’ television series. His Lesgate was more gullible and naïve, suffering from bouts of silliness – clearly cast in jokes – titillating the audience but detracting from the performance.

Which brings me to Chambers as the psychopathic Tony Wendice. He is clearly a talented actor, used to playing light romantic leads (Private Lives, Top Hat), but gave an extraordinarily hammy performance in opening act, both manic and camp in his mannerisms and dancing round the set (pace Strictly Come Dancing), delivering the exposition lines, necessary to understand the plot, with such velocity that it was difficult to follow. His performance calmed after the interval when he was able to explore the deviousness of his character more deeply, but I fear the audience could not take him seriously as a villain by this point, choosing to play it for laughs to the detriment of the piece. I hope his performance will even out during the next three months of the tour, bringing the calculating cleverness of the character to the fore.

Overall, a good production of a real stage classic held up by the magnificent writing. Old fashioned in the best sense of the word, with a plot clever enough to send every budding Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple home satisfied.

Dial M For Murder continues at Theatr Clwyd until Saturday 2nd October https://www.theatrclwyd.com/event/dial-m-for-murder-1

Reviewer: Paul Wilcox

Reviewed: 27th September 2021

North West End UK Rating: ★★★