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Review – Dial M for Murder – Liverpool Playhouse

Frederick Knott’s stage play Dial M for Murder was originally turned down by every theatrical agent that he took it to, and it was only when the BBC adapted it for the small screen in 1952 that the response led to its West End debut later that year. Less than a year later Hitchcock was making it into a feature film, and before long it was hailed as a classic.

Successive stage productions have ranged from those set solidly in its original early 1950s to Fiery Angel’s more abstract reading for their 2014 tour, but this new version, whose arrival has been delayed by successive lockdowns, gives it a slick mid ‘60s feel.

Director Anthony Banks (The Girl on the Train) tells me that he had originally considered looking to a more modern reading of the text, but felt that the existence of the death penalty for murder was so essential to the plot that he carefully placed it at the latest possible date for this, around 1964/65, a decade after the hanging of Ruth Ellis.

David Woodhead’s stylish set design is therefore all steel Crittall windows, Ladderax and G-Plan, and carefully decorated with in-period props. French doors lead to a terrace to one side, whilst the apartment door opens out to that all-important staircase. Lighting from Lizzie Powell casts long shadows from the wings giving us glimpses of the action taking place offstage.

It’s a slow burner of a piece, taking its time to set the scene and drop the complex series of clues that will eventually lead to the unravelling of Tony Wendice’s well-laid plan. Of course Tony’s Plan ‘A’ was the murder of his wife, with assistance bought by blackmail, but sadly he found an incompetent accomplice in Captain Lesgate and by the time we reach the interval it’s all gone wrong and he has had to rapidly formulate a Plan ‘B’. He might just have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for a couple of schoolboy errors.

Tom Chambers plays Tony for full throttle melodrama, dripping with hubris and stripped of the avuncular charm that we might remember from Ray Milland. Here is a villain who we really don’t want to see off the hook. We can’t help feeling he has been punching above his weight with Margot Wendice, played here with fragile sexuality by Diana Vickers, and her steamy early scenes with Michael Salami’s Max Halliday leave us in no doubt that her marriage has washed up on the rocks some time ago. There’s no room here for any hint of the homosexual undertones that some suggest are hinted at in the text.

It is Christopher Harper though who steals the show, in not one but two outstanding character performances, as Lesgate in Act I and Inspector Hubbard in Act II. His detective is not the moustache-twirling John Williams of the silver screen, but a quick witted and sharply witty creation that gets maximum mileage from the snappy dialogue.

Stylish staging and excellent ensemble playing, especially in the successive timing-dependent plot twists, make this a satisfying production that treads a neat path between wit and suspense.

Star rating – 4 stars

Review by Nigel Smith

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