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Review: Dial M for Murder at Newcastle Theatre Royal

All Creatures Great and Small star Christopher Timothy heads cast in the Hitchcock classic Dial M for Murder

****
Philip Cairns as Max Halliday and Kelly Hotten as Sheila Wendice in Dial M for Murder
Philip Cairns as Max Halliday and Kelly Hotten as Sheila Wendice in Dial M for Murder

Walls and carpets the colour of blood set the tone for this stylish take on the Hitchcock classic which drips with tension as it draws the audience claustrophobically close and on its opening night here certainly had us holding a collective breath at one point.

As those familiar with the master of suspense’s classic 1954 film version will recall, that crucial point comes, after a tense build-up, with an attempted murder.

For those who haven’t seen it, I’m spoiling nothing here as the plot is spotlighted early on as the cool, calm and collected Tony Wendice lays out his plan to kill glamorous wife Sheila after discovering she’s been unfaithful.

But forget any shouting and theatrics, there’s no confrontation or admission in this perfectly measured and mannered 50s set-up which makes the methodical way in which Tony goes about planning the perfect murder all the more sinister.

Director Lucy Bailey’s production has the innate sense of sophistication of Hitchcock’s film (which had a screenplay by the 1952 play’s author Frederick Knott and starred Ray Milland and Grace Kelly) and in keeping with the mood are finely-judged performances from the four-strong cast, with Daniel Betts and Kelly Hotten in the lead roles of the husband and wife; Philip Cairns playing the lover Max Halliday; Robert Perkins as Captain Lesgate who’s hired as the killer, and Christopher Timothy (otherwise known as All Creatures Great and Small’s James Herriot) as Inspector Hubbard who has some task on his hands to work out this puzzler.

Set entirely in the living room of the couple’s home in London’s Maida Vale, the story’s stage origins are clear from the off but its confines make that creeping tension greater: more so as we find the centre of the stage is revolving, almost imperceptibly, adding to the uncertainty as the plot twists and turns.

Amid all the smouldering cigarettes and pouring of drinks, we’re caught up in a complex and absorbing tale of jealousy and blackmail featuring incriminating letters, duplicate door keys and centred around an all-important phone call.

Key plot devices of a handbag and the telephone are also picked out in bold red, shouting out their importance.

And with a plot as convoluted as this, modern audiences could do with a little nudge here and there, especially as concentration spans seem to be getting shorter.

I’ve seen the film version several times but could never remember how it all played out, except that there was a confusion over keys.

Even if we don’t quite get it, we don’t much mind – in the way we never expect to fully grasp an episode of Morse or Midsomer Murders.

It looks good; it’s beautifully executed, if you pardon the pun; and it’s well acted. I particularly liked Betts’ Tony. He looks the part, languidly inhabiting his 50s persona with conviction.

The attempted murder is a stand-out moment, so well done it’s pretty scary stuff, before the disorder of the second half sets in with the messed-up set heralding Tony’s loss of grip.

We watch and wait as tables are turned in what is a good old-fashioned stately affair perfect for anyone who loves a good thriller.

Catch Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder until Saturday. Visit www.theatreroyal.co.uk or call 08448 112 121.

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