Retired tennis player Tony (Tom Chambers) hatches a plan to murder his society wife Margot (Diana Vickers) in revenge for her affair with film script writer Max (Michael Salami), requiring Inspector Hubbard (Christopher Harper) to investigate the ensuing proceedings. But that’s enough of the plot of this early genre-defining murder mystery – there are no spoilers here.
For a show that takes a telephony reference for its title – NB. for younger audience members, the letter M was included with the number 6 on an old-style telephone dial – it is no surprise that the telephone, positioned centre stage, has an important role in this play. A pity that the sound effect of the telephone ringing is rather underwhelming and that the too similar sound of the doorbell, on occasions, causes confusion.
All the action takes place in the living room of Tony and Margot’s Maida Vale flat (Designer David Woodhead). A large sofa takes up centre stage, the front door to the apartment at the rear and a pair of French windows to the side leading out past some fine-looking greenery into the sun-lit garden. It is up to Margot and the semi-undressed Max to set the scene for us. With a lot of narrative to get through, and whilst facing up-stage, some of Michael Salami’s diction is not completely clear. Diana Vickers’ performance is sublime. Her text is beautifully precise and, over the course of the evening, we see her turn convincingly through a range of emotions from the alluringly flirtatious to the hysterically distraught.
It is mentioned that Margot enjoys staying in to watch plays on TV, which is a nice touch as this play by Frederick Knott received its first public airing as an episode of BBC Sunday-Night Theatre back in 1952. It was Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film adaptation, with a BAFTA winning performance by Grace Kelly, that brought fame to the play and the lighting design (Lizzie Powell) pays homage to this with beautifully cast shadow effects onto the white walls. Another effect of dipping the central lighting in the room at particular moments in the narrative is less successful.
Director Anthony Banks moves his four actors around the stage – circumnavigating the central sofa – with skill and dexterity. Tom Chambers’ pointed features and angular movements lift his character directly from the pages of a graphic novel. If he doesn’t always appear callous enough for his proposed actions, there is one exquisitely foreboding moment as his false smile turns in slow motion into a rictus grin whilst an unseen clock ticks loudly down the seconds.
Christopher Harper, playing a double role, first appears as Captain Lesgate – suave and debonair but with a chequered history – before taking on the dogged figure of Inspector Hubbard. Played in the tradition of the all-knowing detective, Harper’s performance is compelling. With nervous energy and vocal trickery, the Inspector’s after-thoughts are, of course, the crux to detecting the calumny and the audience wills him on to uncover the truth.
This play is a most enjoyable light entertainment and, despite the word Murder in its title, an amiable drama with more than a few laughs and with only a little threat to the watching audience.
Reviewed by Phillip Money
Photography by Matt Cawrey
Dial M for Murder
Cambridge Arts Theatre until 9th October then UK Tour continues
“At over two hours long, Luke Sheppard’s punchy direction never lets the show drag for a second”
The story behind the inception and eventual opening of “Rent” twenty-five years ago is almost worthy of a musical in itself. Waiting on tables in Manhattan ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ neighbourhood amid the homelessness, punks, addicts and drag queens, young composer Jonathan Larson sweated through the nights writing hundreds of songs, most of which wouldn’t make it to the final cut. When it finally reached its premiere, it attracted press attention on account of opening night falling exactly one hundred years after Puccini’s “La Bohème”, on which “Rent” is loosely based. Leaving the offices of The New York Times, Larson was upbeat, enjoying the dizziness of first night nerves. But that dizziness was concealing a misdiagnosed condition. Larson never made it to the theatre that evening.
Over quarter of a century later Larson’s legacy still continues to burst with energy each time it is revived on the stage. The Hope Mill Theatre’s production is no exception with its intimate and raw staging that is fresh and unique while still remaining faithful to the qualities that powered its original success on Broadway. It’s been a tough journey for the creative team. Scheduled to run this summer, lockdown pushed that back to October, only for it to close after five nights. But before the theatre went dark again it was captured on film by the innovative film company ‘The Umbrella Rooms’ and can now be seen online for a limited period.
The show’s raggle-taggle narrative centres on the tangle of mangled romantic friendships, telling the story of impoverished young artists struggling to survive and avoid eviction; particularly aspiring film maker, Mark, and his song-writer flatmate Roger, who is struggling to complete his ‘one great song’. Characterisation and plot may spend most of the time in the wings, but it is the music that grabs the spotlight, and the fiery dynamism that the cast bring onto the stage. During production, the cast all lived together in a (very noisy) twelve-bedroom house, and the chemistry, conviction and commitment that this would generate clearly shows. Nobody ever leaves the stage, and when not directly in the thick of it the cast watch from the shadows, still acting and reacting.
At over two hours long, Luke Sheppard’s punchy direction never lets the show drag for a second; turbo charged by Musical Director Chris Poon and his pumping five-piece rock band; and Tom Jackson Greaves’ sawtooth sharp choreography. There are a lot of numbers in this show and the cast are on a mission to get through them all. The breathlessness gives way to moments of humour, which in turn bleed into the sad songs, which is where the true emotional kick is felt. Dom Hartley-Harris, as the vagabond anarchist Tom Collins, cuts the atmosphere, and your heart, with a knife during the beautiful ‘I’ll Cover You’ at the funeral of his lover, Angel; powerfully played by the velvet-voiced Alex Thomas-Smith. Millie O’Connell is wonderfully eccentric as experimental performance artist, Maureen, who meets her match in lover Joanne (Jocasta Almgill) during the wonderful ‘Take Me or Leave Me’. Maiya Quansah-Breed’s Mimi commands the space with a sassy swagger weighed down by vulnerability and addiction, while Ahmed Hamad relishes his Ebenezer arc from bad guy to good as Benny. This is a show where the chorus is as crucial as the principals, and the vast array of talent is on clear display throughout. Featured ensemble Kayla Carter, for example, bursts through into the foreground with stunning, soaring vocals during ‘Seasons of Love’, the anthemic opener to the second act.
Central to the story are the joint protagonists, Mark and Roger. Blake Patrick Anderson’s performance illuminates the stage, extremely comfortable and assured with complete control of the soaring notes he aims so high for. Tom Francis is equally memorable as the more brooding songsmith, Roger, eventually finding his muse in Mimi. As he sings the achingly beautiful ‘Your Eyes’ we wonder if it is all too late.
“Rent” is the real Fairy Tale of New York. Exhilarating and poignant. Over a quarter of a century old but still as fresh and timely as ever. “How do you measure a year in a life?” asks the lyrics in the iconic ‘Seasons of Love’. A lot of us are asking how we can measure this past year of ours. Whatever conclusion we make, “Rent” is certainly a fine conclusion to the year in the run up to Christmas, with its relevant, relatable and wretched optimism.