Theatre / Dial M for Murder Apollo Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture
"I've heard about police planting evidence," cries Tony, finding himself in a bit of a spot, "but I didn't realise that it could happen in this country." You couldn't possibly update Frederick Knott's famous thriller Dial M for Murder. At a crucial point, our hapless, helpless heroine is persuaded to stay home to stick her husband's cuttings into a scrapbook. Alas, she has run out of glue. Her ex-lover inadvertently seals her fate by making flour and water paste, which, for those who don't know, was 1951's answer to Pritt Stick. The whole affair is about as relevant to our times as a Canasta party.

The temptation, therefore, is to refresh the play, digging beneath the dialogue for subtext which, in this case, would prove fruitless. Knott's plot, as intricate as a Swiss watch, defies interpretation. Directing, in these circumstances, is a matter of getting the details right, winding the cast up and letting them go. It comes as a blessed relief, therefore, to discover that updating is the last thing Peter Wilson has in mind. Everything about his production, right down to a couple of the actors' photos in the programme, looks as if it has leapt untouched from the Fifties.

As Hilda Ogden once remarked, "I wouldn't have him if he came with a nest of tables," but ex-tennis champ and playboy Tony Wendice is there for the furniture, and the rest, having married glamorous heiress Sheila for her money. Consequently, the set for their Maida Vale home is a feast of furnishings unseen on the London stage this many a year. Antique pink curtains (with tie-backs, of course) swagged across French windows, Chinese vases on occasional tables... we're in prop-buyer's heaven. This affords the actors plenty of opportunities for mantelpiece clutching, a defining feature of early Fifties drama, involving characters in emotional difficulties trying to be stoic while agonising over the fireplace.

Peter Davison, who sounds as if he has borrowed Geoffrey Palmer's voice for the evening, is inspired casting as Tony. His benign, ministering TV persona as that nice vet in All Creatures Great and Small (honed as the beguiled and beguiling young doctor in A Very Peculiar Practice) lends his character an air of innocence and bolsters up this thinly disguised cad.

If every theatre in London were hosting productions like this, it would be cause for a public inquiry, but even if you know the plot, there is something peculiarly satisfying about watching the twists and turns of Knott's deliciously preposterous thriller, as evidenced by the gasps of astonishment at winningly melodramatic curtain lines or the audible sense of surprise rippling through the audience. State of the art theatre it ain't and why commercial stuff like this is deserving of sponsorship is the biggest mystery of the night, but if your tastes run to characterisation via a New Look skirt, spivs in suede shoes and old-fashioned melodrama, save up for a seat and an ice-cream and dial M for marvellous.

Booking: 0171-494 5070

DAVID BENEDICT

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