Don’t pick up the phone: there might be a murderer on the line. Or he might just be behind you... Dial M for Murder, at the Devonshire Park Theatre this week, will have a cord around your neck before you know it.
Experienced actor-directors Phil Stewart and Ben Roddy, in a fresh incarnation as phil&ben Productions, have assembled the best cast for a straight play that the Devonshire Park has seen for a year or more; five highly accomplished actors, utterly in the skin of their characters, and intuitive with the material.
Frederick Knott’s 1952 play was turned into a memorable movie by Alfred Hitchcock, with Grace Kelly and Ray Milland, and there have been more recent adaptations. But the original is still the best, and both the style and the story belong in that 1950s society, where adultery was shocking and any sniff of immorality was unspoken.
Roddy’s team has consciously created an authentic period set, with loving attention to detail, old-fashioned in the best sense. Even the lowering of the curtain in between scenes works rather well. In fact, I was just starting to look around at the interval for that fine old Devonshire Park tradition of coffee served on trays...
The plot, too, has the fine balance of an intricate timepiece where the tiniest cogs and wheels are crucial. Tony Wendice’s scheme to do away with his adulterous wife Sheila is pure evil genius, and its execution – no spoilers – seems surely too fiendish to succeed? Oliver Mellor is superb as the suave, plausible tennis star; amorality with a smile.
His wife Sheila is an immaculate Emma Campbell-Jones, composed but vulnerable, graceful but alarmed: an outstanding characterisation. Who needs Grace Kelly? Her illicit lover, Max Halliday, is shrewdly played by Marcus Hutton, keeping a careful good guy-bad guy equilibrium in his character. And Phil Stewart’s Captain Lesgate, small-time criminal and potentially the fall-guy in Tony’s plotting, has a nice mix of the gauche and the disreputable.
The plot twists and turns, but it just stays this side of credible, and thriller-writer Halliday reckons he can solve it. “They talk about flat-footed policemen,” wryly comments John Hester’s Inspector Hubbard. “Saints protect us from the gifted amateur.” Actually, Hester’s copper is no plodder, but an astute, measured and methodical operator. Always one step ahead, he brings an engaging touch of humour to the role.
How has Knott’s play worn so well? John Hester - speaking during rehearsals - had a view on that: “It’s a brilliantly crafted play, a proper thriller. There is a new genre of psychological thrillers – Girl On A Train, Gone Girl – which rely on a late volte-face in the plot, almost cheating on the reader or the audience because it is something they could not have known. Dial M lets you in on its secrets, but it always makes sense.”
The Inspector rather relishes the task, too, enlisting us all as amateur detectives from the stalls. Never mind if you saw that Hitchcock movie: you will still be puzzling afresh over the denouement. It’s that crafty plot about keys under doormats – I’ll say no more, but it tightens exquisitely like a noose around the guilty party.
The production has a two-week run here in Eastbourne, but it surely deserves a wider national audience. Get there by Saturday, and you can boast of having seen it first! By Kevin Anderson.
Performances at 7.45pm with 2.30pm Saturday matineee. Tickets priced £16 - £23.50, under 16s and Student rate £9, Under 25s £10, Groups and concessions available.