When playwright Frederick Knott first conceived and wrote Dial M for Murder in 1948, he identified the text’s core strength as its seriousness: “this is a serious play”, he stressed, “there is no winking at the audience”. Unfortunately, 72 years and multiple successful theatrical runs and adaptations later, this intended solemnity risks being lost. Indeed, in Anthony Banks’ production of Dial M for Murder at the Richmond Theatre, the suspense and seriousness that defined the original text is completely absent, instead replaced by the lukewarm, predictable delivery of a tired tale.
Banks’ iteration of the classic text faithfully follows the narrative: Tony, a moderately successful ex-tennis player, is seemingly happily married to wealthy socialite Margot, who is having a long-term affair with crime-fiction writer Mark behind Tony’s back. Unbeknownst to Margot, Tony is well-aware of this affair and secretly plots to murder his wife, both for revenge and as a means to access her large inheritance. However, as his plans unravel, Tony must take increasingly precarious steps to ensure his wife is dealt with, once and for all.
In its very design, the play is incredibly cerebral: characters monologue large passages of exposition and motivation to each other, elucidating in detail everything from extended backstories to convoluted murder methods; the emphasis is already very much on ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’.
However, Banks does very little to mitigate this wordy nature, adding little more than basic blocking; it feels as if the actors are performing a radio play for all the action the director imbues into it. Indeed, even the one scene that could reasonably assumed to contain action-packed sequences, the titular murder, is a damp squib; the murder is so underwhelming it evoked laughs from the audience, not gasps. This is all to say that, despite all the dramatic irony Knott has layered into the script, the play has all the suspense of watching a kettle boil.
Nevertheless, the actors do their best to breathe some life into the tired proceedings, but with diminishing returns. The standout of the cast is Tom Chambers as Tony, who delivers a performance that borders on the Machiavellian. It is delightful to watch him concoct new deceitful ‘explanations’ on the fly, infusing some ironic comedy into the otherwise one-note production. The rest of the cast do well to match his level with the exception of Sally Bretton as Margot, however this is probably due to the dated character having all the agency of a piece of furniture.
Moreover, there are aspects of the production to be lauded. Lizzie Powell’s dynamic lighting design adds much needed flair to proceedings, creating an atmosphere that feels urgent and dangerous, and David Woodhead’s set and costume subtly roots the play in the style and sensibilities of post-war Britain. However, it is unfortunately not enough to ignite some vigour on stage.
Ironically, those who would get most from this production are those who know Dial M for Murder beforehand; the director achieves nothing new or original in this iteration, just offering a dedicated rehashing of the well-known plot. The result of this dedication? A joy for those who already have a love for the play and its famous Hitchcock adaption, and can overlook its lapses in characterisation, suspense and originality. As one octogenarian couple near me said as soon as the final curtain fell, “what a delight for the fans!” … at least some people will able to enjoy this production then.
Dial M for Murder is playing at the Richmond Theatre until 18 January. For more information and tickets, visit the ATG Tickets website.