Dial M for Murder is a classic murder mystery, immortalised in Hitchcock’s film version starring Ray Milland and Grace Kelly. The plot concerns former tennis star Tony Wendice (Tom Chambers) who is secretly aware of the affair his wife Margot (Sally Breton) thinks she has successfully hidden from him for over a year. He blackmails an old school friend with a shady past (Christopher Harper in the first of two roles) into murdering his wife while he is out with her lover, giving him the perfect alibi. The cue for the murderer to strike is arranged to be when Tony phones his wife, luring from her bed to answer so the killer knows when to pounce. It’s at this critical point that the apparently flawless logic of Tony’s plan for the perfect murder collapses.
It’s also from this point the play really takes off. Unlike modern TV examples of the genre, where the body (usually the first of several) makes its appearance within minutes, here there is a long exposition establishing the nature of Tony and Margot’s relationship, the motive for Tony’s desire to murder his wife and the reason he chooses his old school friend to do the deed. So we find ourselves with a murder victim only just by the interval. At times this feels slow despite the cast all bringing great presence to their roles.
The gradual unravelling of Tony’s plan makes a far more interesting second half. It’s also helped enormously by Christopher Harper’s Inspector Hubbard, whom he makes just slightly off centre. This turns a workmanlike character from simply a device to explain what’s happening into a humorously effective commentator.
Tom Chambers is delightfully on the smarmy end of suave as the consummately deceptive and devious husband. And Sally Breton, who we are probably more used to seeing playing for laughs in Not Going Out is both feisty and vulnerable as his wife Margot. As her lover Max, Michael Salami is a strong stage presence.
The single room set is carefully positioned at an angle and comes complete with ceiling – unusual in a theatrical set. Its careful design plays with angles and perspectives to give a perfect view of every part. And moving the action from the 1950s, when the play was written and set, to 1963 allows some design flourishes which separate it from the dour post-war period which might otherwise have left us feeling too distant from it.
This is an effective re-imagining of what is for many a well-known piece thanks to the Hitchcock film. But it succeeds on its own terms, avoiding direct comparison by virtue of the slight time shift and performances which stand in their own right.
Dial M for Murder is at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 1 February and then on tour.