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Dial M for Murder (Tour - Oxford)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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And so to the Playhouse for Dial M for Murder. Most, including me, will be familiar with the story from the 1953 Hitchcock film without realising that the story had been a play before Hitch got his hands on it. The first question that needs answering is what is this revival doing here? Alarm bells signal that this could be another representative of the kind of mummified English touring theatre that has wound its rotten roots around the schedules of most of the country’s regional theatres. Mired in the past, with a target audience of septuagenarians and no creative ambitions at all, nothing is more depressing to a reviewer or indeed an actor than to have to summon enthusiasm over the latest production of She Stoops to Conquer or The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Happily, Lucy Bailey’s production is tense, witty and has does a good job of walking the line between reverence for the source material and putting it in the right artistic context. What made Dial M for Murder such a good film was that it was played very straight and serious by Kelly and Milland, whereas Bailey’s production injects some humour into the proceedings. It is entirely appropriate in Hitch’s movie for Tony Wendice to order his wife to fetch him a coffee and open the front door mere hours after she has been almost strangled to death in their flat, but Bailey shows the audience that it is ok to find the humour in this callousness. Elsewhere, the humour turns physical. The moment of the attempted murder contains the same kind of percussive physicality found in really good horror films. Just as it is amusing to watch someone slam a zombie through a sheet of plate glass, when Sheila raises her scissors with the Sturm and Drang of the soundtrack crashing around the auditorium, both fear and comedy are at invoked successfully.

The cast make the most of their roles and seem to be having fun throughout. Nick Fletcher gives Max the charming insouciance of a trainee investment banker and Aislín McGuckin is at turns drippy and haunted as the desperately unlucky Sheila. The only actor dealt a duff hand is Des McAleer who might as well be a voice-over for all the characterisation he is allowed to get stuck into. The play only really drags when he is wheeled on for a bit to advance the narrative.

What flaws there are can be forgiven though given the brio and vitality on display here. Staging a convincing thriller is hard enough but to succeed at that and keep the laugh rate high is a not inconsiderable achievement. Fun and not reverence is the name of the game here.

- Josh Tomalin


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