Wednesday, 23 January 2019

REVIEW: Dial M For Murder - The Little Theatre, Altrincham

Like certain other well-known plays such as ‘Hobson’s Choice’, ‘Wait Until Dark’ and more recently ‘Little Voice’, a presentation of ‘Dial of M for Murder’ will inevitably draw comparison with a classic big screen adaptation; in this case, directed by no less than Alfred Hitchcock in the 1954 version with Ray Millard and Grace Kelly. This can be both a blessing, in that the audience is already warmed to knowing it’s a great story, and a curse in that the theatre has to somehow find some originality without veering too far from audience expectations. Altrincham Little Theatre struck a good balance in meeting this challenge.

Very much a period piece with old-fashioned, dial-up telephones being central to the plot, the 1950s setting of a traditionally-furnished London flat was very well brought over, supported by some great costumes (starting off with a stunning red dress). With the time capsule firmly established, the story set off at a steady pace as we were introduced to the lifestyle of fashionable Londoners who appeared to living slightly beyond their means. The play was fairly tightly directed by Garth Jones but Frederick Knott was, like everyone, a man of his times, and the methodical telling of the story is dated. This style however continues to delight audiences, essentially because it takes us back to another era but what makes ‘Dial M for Murder’ different to. say, an Agatha Christie or a Conan Doyle, is that we learn the details of the murder plot soon into the story and, in true Columbo style, have to wait and see if the detective can work out what we already know.

The characterisations were nicely different to those in the well-known film. Gary Woodhall’s portrayal of the scheming Tony Wendice started off a little more insipid to that of the super-smooth Ray Milland but this helped to mask a more cold and calculating menace which gradually became more evident. Charlie Walsh brought some real personality to the role Sheila Wendice, helped by some great outfits (although it was intriguing as to why she wore tights under her night dress). Alex Clarke as Captain Lesgate provided a nice rough-and-ready contrast to the London society characters and seemed suitably down at heel to be ripe for seduction. Ewan Henderson as Max Halliday provided an interesting twist by presenting a Scottish characterisation; and why shouldn’t a Scotsman have been amongst the main characters? He certainly came over as well established into the London scene. The only character who might have been fleshed out a little more was Charlie Cook as Chief Inspector Hubbard. He gave a good, workmanlike performance but never showed any charisma, which would not have gone amiss if included (especially as he was quite prepared to bend the rules in the execution of his work).

One final thing that is worth mentioning is that the audience laughed in one or two key places which were meant to be points of high-drama. Curiously, exactly the same thing happened when I last saw a production of this play a couple of years ago. Perhaps this is because the old-fashioned style is at times hard for modern audiences to relate to, when we are used to seeing gritty, fast-paced violence on TV. However, this could also explain why plays like ‘Dial M for Murder’ continue to retain their popularity because within it, there is not just an old world charm but a kind of innocence, or at least a lack of cynicism, which for all our modern sophistication (or perhaps because of it) we seem to have sadly lost.

Reviewer - John Waterhouse
on - 20/1/19

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