The pleasure in a repeat visit to a mystery story, thriller or skeleton-in-the-closet family drama cannot reside in the unrepeatable element of surprise. What might please us this time around is the freshness of the telling.
Frederick Knott's Dial "M" for Murder has been thrilling newcomers and pleasing old friends since its debut in 1952 on BBC TV, with swift transfer to the West End and to Broadway the same year. Alfred Hitchcock's film version two years later assured the play's even wider success and fame. The plot, in brief and sans spoiler (just in case you've been away): Tony Wendice, a tennis bum content to sponge off Margot, his wealthy wife, suspects his better half of an adulterous affair with Max, an American television writer. He blackmails a former college acquaintance into helping him in a scheme to murder her for her money. Things go not quite as planned; surprises ensue; there is resolution. We have to accept the premise that people carry only a single key in pocket or purse, and that those keys are all of the same make, but never mind: This is fiction.
Great Lakes Theatre's current production roasts this old chestnut with style and energy, though with some rather over-obvious apprehension lest we not get the point. Charles Fee's direction generally is at pains to make doubleplus sure that no subtlety slips past us. Certainly he moves his actors around the stage in a way that gives pace to some scenes which risk stasis. However, he has also encouraged them to emphasize plot points and crucial moments with volume and "punch," rather than with, say, some gentle timing. The result is to make the artificiality and datedness of the material simply stick out more than they would in a lower-key approach, and to deprive the texture of some of its old-fashioned Englishness.
Robyn Cohen, as Margot, sports an English accent of scrupulous accuracy (except for one word), its carefulness providing a firm anchor in the daunting task of giving this rather drippy character some oomph. Nick Steen's easy charm and clarity make Max's unselfishness very nearly credible. Onstage energy gets a kick in the backside with the entrance of Jonathan Dryud as Tony. He invests his villain with great energy, though one could perhaps wish for slightly more sinister edge. In the rather thankless role of Lesgate, the old college acquaintance, Dougfred Miller teams effectively with Dryud in their dangerously verbose scene, which together they make the high point of the play. Aled Davies plays Inspector Hubbard for all the color and humor he can squeeze out of him.
Russell Methany's lovely open set allows the constant presence of exterior elements — the misty garden, the front hallway. The expansiveness of the room's opening out downstage is balanced by the vivid feeling of the world beyond upstage. Rick Martin's detailed and imaginative lighting articulates and defines this world richly. The set design also allows Lucy Mackinnon's witty projections to illustrate visually the interlocutors of phone calls, who would otherwise appear only as voices over loudspeakers. It's a nice updating of a rather clunky old effect.
Alas, this tendency to cinematic effects rather gets the better of sound designer Joe Court, whose judiciously chosen jazzy scene-change music shockingly intrudes on the most violent moment of the play as movie mood music. Were that moment executed in a silence punctuated only by the noises of human struggle, at enough length actually to create some suspense and horror, how much creepier and more immediate it would be for the audience, who would then perhaps be less prone to out-of-place laughter in the moments that follow. Court has also imposed on tense moments a low background rumble, just to make sure we know something's afoot. The persistence of this rumble for many minutes in the final scene is a serious distraction — relieved, of course, by another burst of violent music at the climax. It's all an unnecessary excess, a gesture of apparent unwillingness to trust script, actors and audience. But the question of music in the theatre is a complex topic for another day.
One could perhaps point out that the lock on the front door is not really the right kind, but again: This is fiction. The over-signposting of directorial stance and sound design aside, this production of Dial "M" for Murder is stylish, energetic, easy on the eyeball, and an amusing evening of light entertainment.
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