Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

dial m head

Dial M for Murder

Sutton Arts Theatre


Murphy’s law: Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.

ANYONE contemplating disposing of their spouse on a rather permanent basis should always take note of Murphy’s Law, particularly if you have employed a small-time, middle aged con man for what will be his first time as a hit man – and a reluctant one at that.

Dial M for Murder started life as a BBC TV play by Frederick Knott, back in 1952 moving on to the stage and finding lasting fame in 1954 when Alfred Hitchcock turned it into a hit film, with a 3D version as well no less, starring Ray Milland and Grace Kelly.

The plot is quite ingenious with a retired tennis star finding a simple solution to end his wife’s affair with a scriptwriter. His plan is fool proof, simple and easy to carry out except for that one fly in the proverbial ointment, Murphy’s Law with the Sod’s Law corollary that it will go wrong at the worst possible time.

Dexter Whitehead is clearly enjoying himself as the former tennis star Tony Wendice. Here is a man self-assured, supremely confident and as the evening progresses, appears to be about as trustworthy as an alcoholic locked in brewery. A real baddy with style.

Michelle Dawes as wife Sheila is a dutiful spouse whose dalliance with adultery appears to have cooled into friendship, not that that distinction counts anymore, and she shows a nice line in fear, followed by panic and finally anguish as her life flashes past her eyes on the way to the interval.

The other man in our love triangle is TV scriptwriter Max Halliday knocking off a murder a week for a TV series, and newly returned from year in New York, who is now offering dial m postfriendship and support for Sheila. Richard Price makes him a matter of fact sort of chap, a little worried in the presence of Tony, as perhaps anyone meeting the husband of a wife he happens to have been secretly bedding might reasonably feel.

He comes into his own as we head towards the climax as his scriptwriting skills and plot lines come to the fore as the play’s deadly deadline approaches.

Then there is Captain Lesgate, small time con man who sees everyone as a mark with a speciality of tricking middle aged ladies out of cash. Richard Clark makes him into a sort of retired colonel type, a slightly sleazy character and one with enough aliases to start his own football team.

No one has said it, but perhaps the time is ripe for a new proverb: he who lives by the con will die by the con – and Lesgate find himself conned into being blackmailed into expanding his career into new directions.

Without giving too much plot away let us say Act II introduces us to James Brain’s Inspector Hubbard, a quietly spoken and very methodical head of CID from Maida Vale nick. He seems a bit ineffectual, a bit intransigent, but behind the dull exterior lurks a calculating mind of which Hercule Poirot would have been proud.

Tony, to his credit, tries to keep the original scheme on track but as the best laid plans of mice and Tony Wendice vanish down the pan, our ex-tennis star now has to show some nifty footwork to keep up with a plan B he never envisaged which is already picking up speed and out of his control.

Director Debbie Loweth has kept a tight rein on the pace, building the tension nicely to the clever climax. There are plenty of nice, small touches which add a natural feel to the action and the plot is first laid out quite beautifully so we know all the whys and wherefores, than bit by bit they are all pulled back in create a final scene revelation.

One of the strengths of Sutton Arts is its sets and this is another beauty, a very solid, middle class Maida Vale apartment from the 1950s. The set building team for this one numbered 15 incidentally, which is probably enough to build the rest of the Maida Vale block.

While lighting from David Ashton, apart from an early blip when a standard lamp came on seconds before Tony reached the switch, which caused some amusement, was spot on with co-ordination as various prop light switches were switched on or off on stage. Not easy and needing a lot of concentration.

The script is quite ingenious and is set firmly in its time by the mentions of money; a former tennis star spending £300 in cash over a few weeks, or drawing out £35 from the bank in a week might be a big deal in 1952 when the average wage was £9 a week, but in 2016 . . . £35 can evaporate between the cashpoint and home.

It’s a well-acted, well-crafted and directed thriller where, unusually, you know all the elements, throw them all in the air and then see how they come down. The tension builds nicely for an intriguing and entertaining evening. To 29-10-16.

Roger Clarke


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