Tuesday 11th September 2018 at Harrogate Theatre.
Harrogate Theatre’s Rep Company switch their Boeing Boeing boarding passes for secret letters in their second show of the season: Dail M for Murder. Frederick Knott’s suspenseful cat and mouse tale was brought to the big screen by the great Alfred Hitchcock and is now brought to the Harrogate stage by Director Ben Roddy who offers up an entertaining evening of guessing games and ever shifting theories…
It’s a mystery in reverse – we know the answers to the murder mystery early on, but we don’t know if, when or how the true villain will be caught out. So what is the big mystery? Well, Sheila Wendice (Katy Dean) has secrets, and she’s told a few lies too – but then again, so has her husband Tony (Louis Tamone)… The intrigue lies in how their lies entangle our characters in a series of events which will inevitably lead to dire consequences…if the true culprit and motive can ever be proven of course. Tony involves an old school acquaintance, Captain Lesgate (Philip Stewart), in his scheming and rather aptly, there’s a murder mystery writer in the mix with friend of Sheila, Max Halliday (Marcus Hutton). When sufficiently tangled in knots, Inspector Hubbard (John Hester) arrives to set about untangling them for our viewing pleasure.
Tamone’s performance allows us to loathe the slimy, entitled, smug Tony very quickly; the smirks last too long and the self-congratulatory pauses in conversation make you wish you were close enough to push him onwards. It’s a little heavy handed to make his mask of acceptable upper class male so fleeting but it secures our distaste and ensures a strong reaction which only grows as we are invested in seeing his schemes play out. In contrast, Dean’s Sheila is easily likeable as she opens the play having an earnest conversation with Max. We learn of her flaws as early on as we learn of Tony’s deceptive facade, but we’re much more inclined to forgive Sheila her misdemeanours with her explanations so well planted. Hutton’s Max is a reliable sort, sturdy and decisive – the perfect antidote to Tony who cannot be pinned down. In contrast, Stewart’s sketchy Captain Lesgate is as seedy as Tony – the only disparity being that he is without the smug clean-shaven face. Hester makes a fine hero as Inspector Hubbard – a classic detective whose gut makes him equally fearless and insightful. Hester gives the authority man a welcome soft edge, offering a playful take on the undoer role rather than serving up another tightly wound, obsessive type. It’s because of Hester that we’re given a chance to smile a little, giving our foreheads a rest from the furrowed brow of keen attentiveness.
Director Ben Roddy does very well to capture and maintain that classic thriller ambience across the play – despite a few delayed starts to scenes which felt a little unplanned, there are some great moments of tension where the stage is empty and we are left to wonder at shadows beneath doors and what a character is up to in the room we never see. Yet the bone I’m for ever picking with productions, particularly period productions, is back. Yes, Dial M for Murder shoots itself in the foot somewhat with the dreaded curtain drops. A scene will play. The curtain will fall. We’ll stare at a splotlit velvet curtain (lovely as it is) for a minute or so. The curtain will rise and a scene will play…and so on. The problem lies in the way this dated relic interrupts pace and tension rather than increasing it. I’m further at a loss here as the curtain fall masks neither set nor costume changes – it seems so completely random to have the curtain fall in a scene only to see the exact same thing when the curtain is lifted a few minutes later – the only notable shifts being the movement of a bag or the arrival or groceries. Did we really need a curtain for that I ask you? If it’s simply a case of indicating the slight passage of time, then there are surely smoother ways to do so -why not just honour the momentum often so well created and plough into the next scene? It’s a recurring disappointment in what is otherwise a fluent, well woven and well played production. Humph.
On the flip side, designs are easier on the eyes and ears than the puzzling curtain use. Sound design from Marcus Hutton is a hit, with some great classic crooners to fill the dead time and they function beautifully as ambient time markers. Keith Tuttle’s lighting keeps in step with the noir aesthetics of sinning in the dark and Andy Newell’s set also pleases with a neat little well-furnished flat marred only by thin, garish yellow curtains…but I guess there’s no accounting for Mrs Wendice’s décor tastes!
In modern terms, this is classic Christie, Poirot, Midsummer Murders, Murder She Wrote stuff – for younger audiences, it’s a little like 13 Reasons Why. It sits on the fence between drama and thriller, not quite having us at the edge of our seats, but certainly keeping us alert and on the trail as events unfold. Our suspicions are baited, our wits sharpen and our competitive streak comes out as we try to beat the Inspector to the ultimate undoing – and that’s a testament to the writing as much as it is to the performances here. And besides, whatever else it does, Dial M for Murder does just enough to make you check the room before you answer the phone the next time it rings…
Dial M for Murder plays at Harrogate Theatre until September 15th 2018 and you can find tickets here.