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Dial M for Murder review Theatre by the Lake, Keswick – ‘an effective revival’

Peter Rylands in Dial M for Murder at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick. Photo: Keith Pattison

How do you revive the thrillers your grandparents enjoyed if you don’t send them up? After last year’s triumphantly playful The 39 Steps, Theatre by the Lake revisits the stiff-upper-lip era with Frederick Knott’s early 1950s thriller Dial M for Murder.

Director Sara Punshon ensures a believably mannered cast of characters, and Martin Johns’ set design eschews symbolic flourishes. As a result the audience mostly gets into the spirit of the thing, with the second half opening scene eliciting some genuine gasps. The odd detective drama cliche raises laughs, but the cast expertly sidesteps them. This principle of playing it as straight as you can is the keynote of Maura Guthrie’s outstanding sound design, which strikes just the right note between tongue-in-cheek pastiche (including a wonderfully ‘spooky’ theremin-style female vocal effect) and Hitchcockian movie soundtrack.

Noel Coward it ain’t, so the melodramatic element is given room to breathe. Nick Beadle’s lighting design adds cinematic punch to key emotional moments. Thomas Richardson’s murderously manipulative husband Tony Wendice signals the mismatch between his suave exterior and his murderous thoughts by speaking too loudly and heartily. Laura Darrall’s Sheila Wendice is deeply traumatized by the possibility that an affair will be revealed even before someone tries to kill her. The other characters provide a nicely phlegmatic foil. Robert Vernon’s cad-for-hire is understated and amoral. Oliver Mott’s ex-lover is chastely respectful, and Peter Rylands inhabits the Inspector calling with just the right degree of watchful inscrutability.

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Effective revival of the mid-century thriller