Dramatic uplighting, a glamorous blonde and a sinister, meandering sax: it’s clear we’re in Hitchcock territory from the very first beats of Dial M for Murder. Originally a play by Frederick Knott, the icy thriller has been returned to its theatrical roots for a prestigious UK tour – and it’s a masterclass in how to stage if not the perfect murder, then the perfect thriller.
Chillingly uncompromising Tony is well aware of his wife’s affair with Max, a kind-hearted crime writer, now back in their lives after a year’s absence. Fearful of losing her (and her money), he embarks on the only course of vengeance that will avoid scandal and land him her fortune – to have her murdered. But, as Max innocently points out, ‘in stories things turn out as the author plans them – in real life they don’t.’
Kelly Hotten, the perfect Hitchcock blonde, gives glamour, vulnerability and humanity to her role as Sheila, the victim of her husband’s murder plot, who proves tougher than he thinks. Philip Cairns, in the role of Tony, is unnervingly convincing as the suave, charismatic villain, concealing his intentions beneath a flawless mask of propriety and politeness.
The play, happily, lacks the predictability of the classic drawing room murder mystery. It’s a relief not to be forced to work out whodunit; instead we’re left to savour every gripping twist and unpredictable turn. Wondrously atmospheric, silent gauze-like curtains and screens, within a moving set, create a feeling of shifting perspectives, while ominous shadows and silhouettes on walls of dramatic, bloody red set the scene for murder.
Though the first act is a little wordy, the play quickly gathers place in act two, culminating in a dramatic, thoroughly engrossing scene in which Christopher Timothy, as the level-headed inspector, sets a trap of his own.
Dial M for Murder, Cambridge Arts Theatre, until 21 March (7.45pm; tickets from £15).