Lucy Bailey, in a directorial return to the West Yorkshire Playhouse, presents us with something a little dated, a fraction too consciously stylish, but undeniably chilling with her production of Frederick Knott's Dial M For Murder. The play might come across as a fairly conventional thriller if it weren't for the twist: the villain is exposed from the start. Instead of a 'whodunnit' angle, cuckolded husband and washed-out former tennis player Tony Wendice (Richard Lintern) carefully draws out his plot to murder his pretty but somewhat vacant wife Sheila (Aislin McGuckin) with the audience privy to every detail. The play's success therefore lies in the tension of watching the wheels being set in motion, and the unpredictable unfurling of events as the murder is ultimately bungled, with all the cover-up attempts that follow.
The opening of the play makes up aesthetically for what it lacks in substance, as Sheila and her lover Max (Nick Fletcher) lounge around in beautifully tailored evening wear, daintily sipping drinks, all the while flanked by the towering scarlet walls of a set that certainly gives no nod to subtlety. At one point, it looks as if things are sliding dangerously into Noel Coward territory as Captain Lesgate (Daniel Hill), the unlucky man blackmailed into committing the murder, guffaws that he 'admires a man who knows what he wants', pipe in one hand, brandy in the other.
However, it is the marvellous Richard Lintern who introduces some bite, playing Tony with a perfect mixture of easy confidence and manipulative charisma. The script is clever and beautifully crafted, allowing the audience to enjoy the delicious irony of Tony's insistence on civility whilst he plots a murder with superbly chilling emotional detachment. Aislin McGuckin does her best to bring Sheila to life, a character primarily to be found staggering around on stage with an array of handbags, stockings and other female knickknacks. Her hysterics toward the end of the play bring laughs, but she handles the rest of Sheila's emotional distress very well.
Much of the production's strength lies in its deft creation of atmosphere, a great deal of which is down to Dial M's expert design team. The music builds up an element of cinematic suspense and this, alongside the set's drapes and dreamy back gauze, mean that the characters are constantly passing in and out of the shadows. The whole tone of the piece changes very successfully from the fusty sitting room chat of the opening, to the highly tense, sharp-paced action that follows, with a brilliant attempted murder sequence that will never allow you to look at scissors in quite the same way again. All in all, a production that only gets better as it goes on, chilling and entertaining in equal measure.