Putting together the ingredients for tense thriller

Dial M For Murder - Eastbourne rehearsals
Dial M For Murder - Eastbourne rehearsals

Last night a brand new production of Dial M for Murder opened at the Devonshire Park Theatre. And – with the help of Eastbourne Theatres and the long-sufferance of the company – I’ve been following the process.

First, find your rehearsal. It is a blisteringly hot afternoon outside, and the interior of the Winter Garden is a landscape of dust-sheets and stacked furniture. Wriggling through to find director Ben Roddy and his cast, I feel like Stanley meeting Livingstone.

Actors have that priceless capacity to blend the imaginative vision with the practical realities. A cluttered rehearsal space can become an elegant Mayfair flat. “It’s all in the mind,” says Ben. “We still have a couple of scenes to block, and we have several more days before we move across to the theatre, but we have the concept, the characters, the chemistry.”

The play is an absolute classic thriller, made famous by the 1950s Alfred Hitchcock movie. Ben is thankfully no Hitch: no dictatorial directing but a co-operative process, steering the moves and suggesting an emphasis - “It’s how you feel it,” he says to seasoned actor Marcus Hutton, playing suave potential murderer Max Halliday.

You may be recalling the plot – tennis player? glamorous adulterous wife? and a teasing trail of deception involving front-door keys under carpets. John Hester, that most accomplished and charming of locally-based actors, is playing the Detective Inspector. “I do quite enjoy the policeman roles,” he admits.

The cast is small but beautifully put together. Oliver Mellor is the matinee-idol tennis star, and even in rehearsal, he puts the dash in dashing. Like Oliver, Marcus Hutton is familiar to Eastbourne audiences, but we are lucky to catch him. “Until three weeks ago I was touring the National Theatre production of This House. It’s what we do – juggling the gaps!”

A fairly late cast change brings to the Devonshire Park, for the first time, Emma Campbell-Jones who is perhaps best known for her Mary McNab role in Outlander, as well as for Dr Kent in Doctor Who. Fresh from a West End run in The Best Man, she has stepped off the train, script in hand, to play the iconic Grace Kelly role of Margot Wendice.

“Ha, I think she just played it as Grace Kelly, and it isn’t a question of comparing or emulating. I’m feeling my way into the part - rehearsing is never a chore, it’s about bringing the lines to life and understanding the character.

“Actors do live in the moment, and each production is newly created. You need to work quickly, and you need to immerse yourself in the context as well as the role. Dial M for Murder, remember, was written in the 1950s with a different framework of morality and convention. Nowadays, if people have an affair, in Margot’s situation without children or other ties, she would probably divorce and move on! But the conventions of Dial M don’t allow her, and so it has to be about dark deeds and dilemmas.” Meanwhile for Emma, it is about blocking Act Two, and I slip away. By Kevin Anderson.