A gripping tale of detection

Philip Cairns as Max and Christopher Timothy as Inspector Hubbard

Dial M for Murder

Malvern Theatres

*****

THIS is not one of those murder mysteries where we are drawn into playing the detective, as with a Poirot for instance, seeking to identify the murderer from a number of plausible candidates.

No, here we are watching, as in The Day of the Jackal, a very meticulous and cold-blooded killer as he carefully and precisely plans and designs the 'perfect murder'. Tony Wendice has discovered that his wife has been conducting an affair with Max, a writer of crime fiction.

When Max returns after working for a year in New York, Tony decides the time has come to act and he blackmails Swann, a past acquaintance from his schooldays, into becoming the hired assassin of Sheila his unfaithful wife.

Swann initially resists the assignment but is persuaded without too much difficulty when he learns that Tony knows of his various aliases and debts and could therefore expose him and land him in prison for some time.

Max is a writer of crime fiction; early in the play he is discussing whether his expertise in the ways of the underworld might equip him to carry out the ‘perfect murder’. He observes that in contrast to fiction, in real life things do not work out perfectly. It is no surprise then that, though we witness Tony's meticulous preparations, the plan unfortunately falls apart, mainly because Sheila resists Swann's attempts to kill her; indeed she retaliates, killing Swann in the process.

Tony attempts to recover the situation in the aftermath but is ultimately outwitted by the Police Inspector who proves equally meticulous and just a shade more subtle.

FASCINATING

This play has a few suspenseful moments but it is more fascinating than tense. We are absorbed by the cold-blooded villain and his careful, calculating ways in manipulating those around him and executing his fiendish tactics. Daniel Betts as Tony Wendice maintains a chilling cool more or less throughout. At one point he does throw up in the waste bin and then leans back to laugh somewhat hysterically at the way things have worked out with his wife facing the death sentence for murder - her elimination would not be how he planned it, but the result would be the same.

Otherwise he betrays little genuine human emotion, he is a convincingly dark and ominous villain. The Police Inspector is played by Christopher Timothy in an understated way: his manner is not forceful but the logic of his questions and deductions expose the weaknesses in those he challenges, and his character proves powerful without being forceful. Philip Cairns as Max, Kelly Hotten as Sheila and Robert Perkins as Captain Lesgate complete a very strong cast.

The design for this show is excellent. The murderous red theme dominates the minimalist set: the limited stage furniture suffices to establish the atmosphere; the use of the red gauze upstage enables us to see, when necessary, the characters in the hallway; the lighting is very atmospheric, at times making particularly effective use of silhouettes and the spooky music lends a filmic quality to the action at times. The revolve adds variety as well.

At times the play becomes somewhat melodramatic: the struggle between Sheila and Captain Lesgate is in danger of being overplayed. There are some genuinely amusing moments: the dramatic irony when Max proposes a 'clever' ploy to save Sheila which entails Tony making a confession that he had blackmailed Swann in precisely the way that we witnessed earlier is thoroughly comical.

We all love a good story and ‘Dial M for Murder’ provides us with a gripping one. The audience loved it and enjoyed the intellectual challenge of following the plot as well as the moments of genuine suspense. It is a great evening's entertainment.

Tim Crow 

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