Dial M for Murder (1954) was the only film Alfred Hitchcock made in 3-D. There is one terrific moment in it when Grace Kelly gropes for a pair of scissors to stab her assailant, and she seems to reach right out into the audience. Apart from that, Hitch’s special effects are largely limited to surrounding the Wendices’ oppressive living-room with foregrounded drinks cabinets and sofas.
This production of Frederick Knott’s original 1952 play could do with some of that three-dimensionality. It’s flat.
This isn’t entirely the fault of the cast and crew. The source material, now 71 years old, feels awkward, stagey and hopelessly old-fashioned. Although a big hit in its day, this is sub-Agatha-Christie fare, with one of the most tortuous, elaborate and unconvincing twists at the end that you’ll ever see. It opened in the West End in the same month as Christie’s The Mousetrap, and it closed three months later. The Mousetrap is still running today (and no, I’m not going to tell you who did it).
But Dial M for Murder is regularly dusted off and performed by theatre companies. There’s something reassuring about it, harking back to the good old days when men could bond over a glass of sherry and memories of what they got up to in the changing rooms of Cambridge, while their wives could be conveniently murdered, or at the very least framed for murder and then executed by the State. The success or otherwise of a modern production depends heavily on what perspective it takes on this creaky old text. There was a 2017 version which presented it as a game of Cluedo. Others have gone full-tilt for the gay subtext and found deep pools of (possibly unintended) meaning to bring to the surface. It’s like a playground for reinterpretation and theatrical imagination.
The one thing that doesn’t work is just putting the lines in some actors’ mouths, and sending them out to speak them. You need some sort of directorial intention; you need to fashion a sense of relationship between the characters; you need an idea. Without these, the whole thing feels out-of-date and pointless.
In Broken Wheel’s production, the cast do attempt the cut-glass accents of the middle classes in the 1950s. But these are undermined by the fact that they are all wearing jeans and jumpers. The villainous Tony Wendice is almost unintelligible much of the time in his struggle to sound posh. They have made his old Cambridge pal a woman, which makes no sense for a story set in 1952 (I’ve no problem with Swann being played by an actor of any gender at all, but making him actually female in the plot without updating the period is deeply unconvincing). In any case, they have only partially altered the script to reassign Swann’s gender, so the characters frequently and confusingly referred to the dead woman as ‘him’.
The attempted murder is one of the play’s few moments of genuine action, and it was done with such underpowered energy that I could hardly believe the scissors had penetrated the victim’s raincoat, never mind their skin. It was like watching a Pollock’s Toy Theatre. Isn’t that a moment of desperation? A moment when a woman is fighting for her life? When she grabs a humdrum domestic item and turns it into an instrument of extreme violence?
Things did perk up when Chief Inspector Hubbard turned up to figure out the mystery. (Clever inspectors are always enjoyable, whether asking all the suspects to gather in the billiard room, or, as in this case, figuring out how the entire mystery revolves around who put which key where.) The inspector’s deductions catch the perpetrator in a web of his own making. But I’m afraid the complex exposition was just not clear enough last night, and the final moment, which should be one of perfect completion and entrapment, just looked like a guy walking into his own house.
And while we’re on the subject of walking through doors, this production lists not one but two people as set designers. And yet the set consists of nothing more than a basic table from the wrong time period, a couple of chairs, a phone (a push-button one for goodness’ sake!) and a door. It had no dynamism or style. Where was the design?
I am sorry not to be able to be more positive about this show. To be fair, it was completely sold out, so maybe I am in a minority. But you have to say it as you see it. In this case, I’m afraid it’s Dial M for Missed Opportunity.