Dial M For Murder is at The King’s Theatre Edinburgh this week (Mon 24 to Sat 29 Feb) and, as usual, King’s Theatre audiences seem to be loving their murder mystery story, and why not, this one by English playwright Frederick Knott is a classic one. Many people, however, probably associate Dial M for Murder with the 1954 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings, and John Williams. Sadly though, this is not a classic production of the play (on which the film was based) and to be honest, I am not sure what has gone wrong, what has somehow got lost in translation here.
When you enter the theatre, the one thing that strikes you with an impressive visual impact is the single room stage set, a fine piece of theatrical design by David Woodhead with clever use of forced perspective lines for the stage. In this production though, we have moved from our original setting of the early 1950s forward a decade to the early 1960s, 1963 to be precise, and that transition seems to be bringing a few problems with it. One is that, although this set at first glance looks to be impeccably staged with props, when you look closer there are some items there that should not be there for another few years (well to my eye at least). The second problem is the music and design at times – someone seems to be treating the 1960s like it was all one sound and visual landscape, and although sometimes only separated by a few years, there are major differences between the years, and getting them wrong just jars with the whole feel of the story. Perhaps the biggest problem though is that this decade move forward brings some major changes to the way the British legal system was then dealing with punishment for crimes and simply is at odds with this story line.
Murder stories are always difficult to review as you don’t want to give away the plot to anyone going to the show who does not know the story, but telling you this is a story about a man who plans to murder his wife gives no clues away, and our cast (below) should have had everything set up here for a classic murder story – a classic story to work with, and even with a few out of place props, a fine set to firmly ground their story in some degree of realism.
Tom Chambers - Tony Wendice
Sally Bretton - Margot Wendice
Christopher Harper - Captain Lesgate / Inspector Hubbard
Michael Salami - Max Halliday
What has gone wrong then? Well, some small re-writes to the script to take our story forward a decade have not helped, particularly when some are introducing humour at the wrong places. Humour does seem to be the problem here all too often through this production, as that much needed dramatic suspense and tension that you so much need in this type of production is all too often replaced by a lightness of approach to characters that is at many times bordering on light comedy farce. I have no idea where this is coming from, is this how our cast want to play these roles, or is it how they have been directed (Anthony Banks) to play them. Whoever is responsible, it is not working and some fine performances at times are simply outweighed by some odd moments on stage, and you know something is wrong when the audience is finding humour to laugh at where there should be none.
Having said all of the above, and sounding perhaps a little too negative on this production, I did leave the theatre wondering if it was simply me as there was a large round of applause from many people at the end of the show.
Review by Tom King (c) 2020