FringeReview UK 2018
Director Derek Watts has set this play in the black and white B movie format author Frederick Knot worked in. Gerry Cortese, working with the director, has produced a remarkable set – and costumes. Trevor Morgan’s responsible for lighting and sound design. Keith Gilbert, Don Plimmer and the team – as well as painters Cortese Ros Weaver and Emily Blake-Dyke – have produced a wondrously detailed West-End quality set.
I don’t buy it, quite. Frederick Knott spent so much effort to get into film-writing that his dismissive comment that he only did it for the money seems dubious. There’s a plot here, just as conferring his own tennis-playing gifts on his most infamous villain isn’t just writing about what you know. Knott would have played at Wimbledon had not war intervened.
Knott was a perfectionist, I suspect. Someone who’d let only the very finest work out, and who’d been subjected to a bruising initiation in churning out ‘quota quickie’ B movies after the war, or being involved in them. There, I think, lies an aversion and an exhaustion, an exorcism almost.
Dial M for Murder is his first and still most famous of the superb trio he left – after Write Me a Murder (1960) the last Wait Until Dusk (19660 was also made into a starry film. But as director Derek Watts points out Dial M wasn’t intended for the theatre, ground out in his parents’ home over the winter of 1951-52. Watts has related these details so it’s worth celebrating his decision to return the theatre version, later technicolour Hitchcock (Hitch distrusted colour) back into black-and-white. It’s a retro-fit into Knott’s world. No matter the theatre which saw its permanent ascendancy is in colour, Watt’s decided on capturing the psychologically taut apogee of this genre. After twenty years contemplating this small masterwork, it’s an inspired way in.
Gerry Cortese, working with the director, has produced a remarkable set – and costumes. No matter it’s produced in immaculate black and white a drawing room where the only colour is the pallid flesh of actors out of their grey-scaled costumes. Or that the dove-grey back wall is in fact diaphanous so that in Trevor Morgan’s lighting (and sound design) it suddenly reveals a staircase with a crucially-hidden key. It’s a beautifully constructed drawing room with a crucial window stage right, a sofa centred a drink cabinet upstage right where there’s the main door centred (replete with shadow painting of panels, but a real panel nonetheless) and downstage left another chair and sewing implements. Upstage left is another door, here leading to the bedroom where it’s clear mirrors operate. Downstage right thin front of the window’s the imposing desk with period telephone where bank statements are scrutinised and scissors left out. It’s altogether a handsome affair. Keith Gilbert, Don Plimmer and the team – as well as painters Cortese Ros Weaver and Emily Blake-Dyke – have produced a wondrously detailed West-End quality set.
Laura Fausner’s Sheila and Matt Turpin’s Tony Wendice enjoy a glacially polite marriage. An ex tennis star who married a fan for money, they’ve navigated the fact of her emotionally straying exactly a year ago to Max Halliday (James Firth-Haydon) screenwriter back from Hollywood who’s due round. Sheila doesn’t know several things. That Tony knows they had an affair, that Tony was in fact the blackmailer who stole her one remaining love letter from Max, and that he plans to kill her and inherit her wealth. Outwardly he’s all urbanity, like welcoming Max the crime screenwriter who fancies himself as an amateur sleuth; and turns out pretty good. Tony excuses himself from their trip to the theatre and instead entertains a man about a car. But it’s not his car he wants. It’s his soul.
Tony’s a study in calculating, cold sexual fury, profoundly misogynistic. I wonder if woody Allen’s 205 Match Point with a similarly murderous and meticulous tennis coach is a conscious homage. Tony explains everything to Rob Punter’s Captain Lesgate whom he then unveils as Swan a ne’er do well he knew from school, and whose life he knows in detail. He even ensures Lesgate/Swan accidentally fingers the incriminating letter. Lesgate’s hoping to marry his rich landlady. Shady himself, and now blackmailed, he’ll commit murder for Tony Wendice. It all depends on a latch key. And Lesgate must replace it. Just how faithful he is to the letter, and when he replaces it, is the plot’s lynch pin
Only one small glitch. Strangely Lesgate doesn’t offer to hand over the drink he pours to the initially ‘lame’ Wendice.
There’s a flaw in the pattern. Tasked to stay in when she wanted to go out whilst Tony entertains Max at a stag party, Sheila does as she’s told, sadly. She works on Tony’s scrap books. She leaves the scissors out. So when the phone rings from Tony to get her to the phone and thus within strangling range of Lesgate, who’s let himself in, something goes wrong. And again when the returning Tony, alerted by Sheila, returns. Tony is fiendishly improvisational, and plants enough evidence to see Sheila hang. Or so he thinks with Alan Lade’s dismissive Chief Inspector Hubbard. Who seems unresponsive to Max, or even Max’s what-ifs then open accusations. Nothing’s as it seems. There’s all that money taken out for Lesgate ensuring Tony’s written no cheques. In 1952, this was notable.
This is consummately no whodunnit. That’s clear from the outset. The psychological why’s worth exploring though the thriller element is to see how the disparate characters respond to pressure and revelation. Its not just Tony who’s not what they seem.
Matt Turpin’s smooth suavely understated Tony Wendice is impressively unruffled convincing us with a rapid mood-swing either for effect (to ensure Sheila stays in) or improvisational calmness. Even when challenged by Max he’s incapable of being caught off-guard. Turpin’s a model of restraint. And his last look furnishes a contrast even more tellingly as the curtain falls.
Firth-Haydon’s Max Halliday is attractively straight-from-hip smart, warm and with reserves of passion at the climax. Firth-Haydon exudes transatlantic charm combined with an emotional urgency explaining his attractiveness.
Punter’s Lesgate is all shifty moustaches – not the last of the evening – with a gruff air easily unmasking a haunted and furtive man tight-roping ruin. His tight-lipped admissions – wrenched out of him by the wily Tony – are treasurable.
Lade’s Hubbard strikes the precise note of quiet boldness, a veneer of solicitude and relatively high-status command. Lade convinces us Hubbard’s not a man to plea-bargain with, all dispatch, apparently dismissive and with a sudden capacity to put down those who think they’re smarter. His great pounces are the most thrilling of the second half.
Fausner’s one of the most professionally-experienced of those appearing at LLT – she recently starred in Woman in Mind as well as featuring in When We Are Married. She’s in command of the stage physically, she acts fluidly where required in the climactic scene in Act I and is thoroughly convincing in a scene of visceral panic. Few can inhabit the stage so well. Judging from the highest standards the one note I don’t quite get in her Sheila is vulnerability, or intense emotion; though Sheila’s physical fright is palpable. Is it possible Fausner might shine even more in a comedy, particularly where magnificent comic creations are required?
This production of Dial M for Murder is in the best traditions of the house. A superb entertainment, suavely and consummately executed with some depth, it must feel reassuring to tread in such a solidly realised black and white world.