Most audiences will know Dial M for Murder as Alfred Hitchcock’s first of three collaborations with Academy Award winning actress Grace Kelly. Few people realise that Dial M for Murder in fact began its life as a play intensively written by Frederick Knott over the course of 18 months. Giving its audience a frightening insight into the mind of a murderer, Knott’s play provides a portrait of the possible psychological motives behind constructing and carrying out a murder.
When the play opens, lovers Shelia Wendice and Max Halliday are newly reunited following Max’s return from a year in America. Unbeknown to the lovers, Shelia’s husband Tony is fully aware of their affair and has been plotting to murder the wealthy Shelia. He lures Captain Lesgate, an old acquaintance from Cambridge University, to his flat and blackmails him into murdering Sheila. The plot unravels further with many twists and turns, a complex story that is surprisingly easy to follow on stage thanks to Knott’s writing and concise direction from Lucy Bailey.
As Shelia Wendice, Kelly Hotten makes an elegant transition from chirping charm to despairing vulnerability and quiet determination. By sharp contrast, Philip Cairns gives a dull performance as Max Halliday, his love affair with Shelia is unconvincing, his toneless and robotic delivery makes one question why Shelia would ever risk her marriage for a man who is far from the “warm and generous lover” Lucy Bailey visualised during her direction of the play. Daniel Betts is deliciously evil as Tony Wendice, his actions influenced by cold calculations and self-satisfaction.
Mike Britton’s far from subtle set of blood red walls and draping curtains suitably creates an element of suspense and claustrophobia whilst Mic Pool’s sound design is effective during moments of high tension, particularly during the struggle between Sheila and Lesgate (dramatically directed by Philip D’Orleans). There are moments when it seems Knott’s dialogue is no longer as engaging as it once was and even the rotating set is not enough to save the play from momentarily falling into a state of too much talk and not enough action.