Chances are, you know Dial M For Murder as a Hitchcock film – but long before it got the big-screen treatment, it was already a successful stage play. This comfortingly old-fashioned production returns to Frederick Knott’s original script, telling the ill-starred tale of a cuckolded husband and his plans for revenge on his wayward wife. Set, as the programme tells us, on “a Friday evening in September 1952”, the plot oscillates between meticulously well-laid plans and desperate off-the-cuff improvisation… and as the husband’s murderous scheme begins to unravel, the shadow of the hangman’s noose is never far away.
Talking Scarlet’s production contains its fair share of electric moments, generated not by on-stage action, but by a cast who are unafraid of the meaningful pause. The slow-burning opening scenes may prove a little frustrating, but the drama picks up in the second act – and the final minutes, played out in half-darkness, are a study in ratcheting tension. The production also does a fine job of navigating the mildly convoluted dénouement, with its emphasis on identical props and the improbable arrival of a character who should, realistically, be securely in jail.
But if Knott’s venerable script creaks a little, the acting is both poised and assured. Playing bad guy Tony Wendice, Oliver Mellor embodies understated malice – the occasional self-satisfied smile offers just the right amount of insight into a malevolent soul. John Hester is entertaining as the obligatory police inspector, whose seemingly air-headed questioning disguises a sharp brain, and Marcus Hutton also stands out as the lover Max Halliday; with a permanent stoop and tellingly nervous mannerisms, he offers a touch of sensitivity to counteract Wendice’s coldness. On the night I attended there was still a little clumsiness in movement round the stage, but that’s a problem you’d expect to be ironed out over the course of a three-week run.
All in all then, this is a solidly traditional production of a solidly traditional script – and of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. If I’m honest though, I was willing them to mix it up a bit: to add a stylish twist, a knowing tone, some recognition that Frederick Knott’s of-its-time writing can feel incongruous in the modern day. It’s a shame, for example, that the impressive Terri Dwyer doesn’t have more to work with; as soon as her character has delivered the crucial plot twist, she declares herself tired and exits the stage in a 1950’s swoon.
I’m also not sure it’s entirely necessary to fill the auditorium with a fog of real cigarette smoke – verisimilitude’s all very well, but not if it gives your audience a banging headache. In the end though, I enjoyed Dial M for what it is – a faithful period piece, enhanced by flashes of wickedness and building to a cleverly-worked conclusion. I’m looking forward to seeing Talking Scarlet return to Emporium with a more modern play, Dealer’s Choice, next April.