You'll just die to see this show

'Dial M for Murder' is back. Will the producers make a killing? David Benedict weighs up the evidence

Just as Constable's landscapes are nostalgic images of the vanished countryside of his childhood rather than depictions of the increasingly industrialised scene around him, the conventional stage thriller cleaves to the comfort of the past. For all its shocks, surprises and suspense, it is the safest of genres. It's also the best place to rediscover British Fireside Acting.

This fast vanishing art consists, in most instances, of a snowbound cottage, a comfortable box set complete with fireplace upstage right and a reliable chap in sensible shoes standing in front of a log 'n' flame effect rubbing his hands and saying "brrrr" a lot. This, or something very like it, reached its apogee in the hands of such leading thrill merchants as the urbane Francis Matthews and smouldering Gerald Harper, both of whom capitalised on their TV careers as Paul Temple and Adam Adamant respectively.

Those unfamiliar with the smartly-dressed style of the classic West End thriller as epitomised by Suddenly at Home, or anything by Francis Durbridge, should think Howard's Way with fewer boats and more blood. Unashamed, crowdpleasing moneyspinners, they appeal to conservative theatregoers and, when they work, nearly everyone's happy. Once upon a time, producers could rely on casting a couple of stars (Richard Todd? Nyree Dawn Porter?), issuing injunctions against the press about divulging the name of the rotter in question, watching audiences try to discover whodunnit, and counting the profits. And there were profits to be made. Richard Harris's The Business of Murder began in 1980 at the Strand, moved to the Duchess and wound up with an almost six year run at the Mayfair.

Anyone who believed the genre was dead and buried (or confined to The Mousetrap, 43 years and counting) will be surprised to learn that Dial M For Murder is back. The title is so familiar, half the world thinks it must have been written by Agatha Christie. In fact, it is one of a select band of plays the fame of whose titles eclipses that of the playwright. Who knows that before being catapulted to TV stardom as Private Godfrey in Dad's Army, Arnold Ridley wrote The Ghost Train, that cast-iron staple of repertory and amateur theatre companies up and down the land (as revived only last season to crowd-packing effect in a smart, programme-balancing move by Lawrence Till, artistic director of the Bolton Octagon). Twelve Angry Men, recently exhumed by Harold Pinter, is the work of Reginald Rose, while the man with his finger on the Dial is Frederick Knott.

This, his first play, was first produced for TV in 1952, the broadcast and its repeat five days later netting him pounds 141. The budget for the less- than-extravagant stage premiere that summer was 10 times the amount. Its West End success was repeated world-wide, although Pravda dismissed the Moscow incarnation as "a low-level bourgeois gutter play". Hitchcock's film version - shot in a mere 36 days and in 3-D to boot - kept faith with the conventions of the piece by holding on to Knott's structure and not falling into the trap of opening the play out and thereby dissipating the tension.

Unlike Christie's pot-boilers with their hidden evidence, Knott's play isn't a whodunnit at all. Very early on, we become privy to the fact that the tennis-playing hero has plans for his wife that don't include the word "love". Instead, Knott trades in plot twists and builds suspense while working the tried and trusted formula of marriage, money and murder.

The play's return is being heralded with a predictable chorus of groans. Thrillers were enough of a West End mainstay to inspire one of Tom Stoppard's neatest comedies, The Real Inspector Hound, almost 30 years ago. Now, they are deeply unfashionable: who can remember the last good one? Sleuth? In 1970, Anthony Shaffer, brother of the more famous Peter, notched up a five-year London run with his fiendishly plotted winner, which managed to satirise the Christie country-house genre while serving up a storyline complicated enough to satisfy the most exacting of audiences.

Broadway has given us Ira Levin, with Deathtrap his most successful theatrical outing. "You really were on the edge of your seat," recalls one audience member. "There was a terrifying moment when someone came crashing through a window. That's what you go for: action that you don't expect to happen, the shock." She wasn't too impressed by the chopping-off of Bill Paterson's leg in the stage version of Stephen King's Misery, "but I'll never forget the moment Sharon Gless was suddenly revealed in the doorway in a shaft of light".

Stephen Mallatrat clearly understands that the thriller audience wants a good story. His adaptation of Susan Hill's The Woman in Black is now in its eighth year, while last year's Dead Guilty - reviews for which included such choice phrases as "a perfect anaesthetic" and "an irredeemable dud" - not only ran its initial six-month period but was extended for a further three. Unlike New York, where attendances and box-office receipts are published weekly, West End figures are a closely guarded secret but, like The Mousetrap, Dead Guilty was certainly working on the premise that what you lose in the week, you make up for at the weekend.

Don't be fooled, however, into thinking that the thriller is easy money. An overdesigned version of Christie's Murder Is Easy from the team behind TV's Poirot sailed in to the Duke of York's in 1993 with a cast including Richard Attenborough's daughter Charlotte. If The Mousetrap was good enough for her dad (he was in the first cast) then this, by implication, was good enough for her. It was not long for this world. The salient point here is that not only did this production-team work better on TV - Poirot has won Baftas like they're going out of style and sells worldwide - but that TV has usurped the entire genre. Who wants to see creaky old stagecraft when you can have Joan Hickson in lovingly crafted versions of Miss Marple that paper over the cracks by taking the work seriously? Armchairs, for an elderly audience, or any audience for that matter, are a great deal more comfortable than most theatre seats. If they do venture out, well- filled wallets at the ready, maybe they would concur with Blanche in Belle Reprieve, the Split Britches / Bloolips spin on A Streetcar Named Desire, who bursts out of an experimental scene to harangue the cast: "What's wrong with a beginning, a middle and an end? I want french windows and a drinks trolley."

As the population ages, there may be an ever-increasing case for giving audiences what they want. The issue, of course, is one of balance. The West End cannot (and should not) survive without the "boulevard bon-bons" referred to by Trevor Nunn in his recent tirade about the state of London's theatre, but it has to be balanced by work of vision, immediacy and excitement. The irony about going to a murder mystery is that it is theatre at its most deadly. Sponaneity is nowhere. Everything is subservient to plot. You derive the same satisfaction from watching a thriller as from completing a crossword puzzle. After the chaos of murder, order (usually set in nice polite society) is restored. Reassurance as an art form.

"Twenty-seven West End theatres are at present offering light comedies and musical shows, of which perhaps a dozen are good of their kind. The number of new plays with the slightest claim to serious discussion is three." Kenneth Tynan wrote that in 1954. Sound familiar?

If theatre is to survive, it has to offer something that TV cannot. There must be hundreds of people who have turned up to Stephen Daldry's production of An Inspector Calls who have found themselves watching something owing more to expressionism and ideas of socialism than anyone's idea of a detective story. Many will have liked it but, even if you loathed it, Daldry and designer Ian MacNeil have turned an old warhorse into something fresh and stimulating. Will Dial M for Murder manage that? In theatre's dwindling audience is there anybody left who knows that telephones used to have letters as well as numbers on them?

n 'Dial M for Murder' is in preview at the Apollo Theatre, London W1. Booking: 0171-494 5070

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea