Review by Jane Ledwell
Regular readers of my reviews over the years here will know that my partner is, uh, a reluctant theatre-goer, so it is a testament to the consistent quality of the Watermark Theatre’s productions that he suggests we go there at least once a summer. This year his pick was Dial “M” for Murder. Reader, he was not disappointed.
Frederick Knott’s 1952 play (the basis for Hitchock’s 1954 film) opens on a conversation about murder and motive between Margot Wendice (Madeleine Donohue) and her former lover, American crime writer Max Halliday (Geoffrey Pounsett). Despite the obvious spark and ease between Margot and Max, she insists her marriage to retired tennis star Tony Wendice (Robert Tsonos) has returned to a happy state and that Tony has matured, taken a responsible job, and been an attentive husband for the year since they parted.
The brash and arrogant Tony has not changed without motive: he has been plotting all year to bribe a shifty college mate, currently going by the name of Captain Lesgate (Richard Beaune) to murder Margot, in a plot as intricate as any of Max’s television or radio plays or thriller novels. The plot relies on the technologies of the day: radios and, especially, the telephone but unravels with the tools at hand—stockings, scissors, and latchkeys—with the prospect of a solid old-fashioned noose for whatever murder suspect the detective, Inspector Hubbard (Paul Cowling) ties the evidence to.
As thousands of detective stories and police procedurals have taught audiences, there is no such thing as a perfect crime. The thrill of figuring out the errors in the perfect plot doesn’t diminish. The Watermark’s thrust stage makes the audience feel very much part of the investigation, so close are we to the action and so expertly and intriguingly is the action blocked by director Megan Watson: I loved seeing the ways Watson used the stage and the whole theatre to tell this story.
But the primary suspense for Watermark audiences in the opening acts of Dial “M” will no doubt be alarm that murder might eliminate the charming Margot from the scene, and with her the excellent Madeleine Donohue. Thankfully, the play conspires to keep her present after the murder plot unfolds. The chemistry between Margot and her paramour Max is palpable (and genuine—Donohue is married to Max’s Pounsett in real life)—setting in contrast the lack of sympathy between Margot and the unreformed Tony, whom Tsonos plays with a clipped, articulate, and devious intelligence.
At Watermark Theatre, the acting is always the highlight, with strong supporting performances (Beaune as the simpering, hapless Lesgate and Cowling a sharp-eyed, incisive inspector), but the acting comes to life as a result of a fully-realized production. William Layton’s set is a stand-out, with Frank Lloyd Wright details and rivetingly framing a blood-stain at centre-stage; lighting by Renee Brode was subtle and precise, despite a script that is bossy about what lights go where. Costumes by Julia Hodgson-Surich were classic and functional, with smooth lines and fabrics audience members will want to touch. The most obvious homage to Hitchcock’s take on Dial “M”, original music by Leo Marchildon adds significantly to the brooding atmosphere, sometimes trying to fit more passionate love of Hitchcock’s use of music into scenes than a small theatre can hold.
There is much mystery for contemporary audiences watching Dial “M”, a thriller from an age when forensic tools consisted of fingerprints, photographs, and time-keeping devices: we have to stretch our imaginations beyond DNA and cellphone records. The Watermark’s production carries us wholesale into the intrigues of that age a lifetime ago.
—Jane Ledwell has been writing feature profiles for The Buzz for 20 years. And in the summer the editor enjoys assigning her a review.