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Interview with Dial M for Murder director Lucy Bailey

Approved by ATG's PR & Communications Officer, David Bradbury

Theatre director Lucy Bailey must have something of a split personality, to judge by the way she runs her professional life, that is. She’s usually to be found working at the Royal Shakespeare Company or Shakespeare’s Globe, bringing the Bard’s plays to the widest possible audience. However, she sometimes strays into the very different terrain of the thriller and she now brings to Richmond Theatre one of the classics of the genre, Frederick Knott’s gripping Dial M for Murder. The play, written in 1948 but not produced until 1952, is probably best known in its 1954 screen incarnation, the first film to be shot in colour by director Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense himself.

Lucy, whose other credits include stage versions of such Hollywood sizzlers as Baby Doll and The Postman Always Rings Twice, has been a fan of what she describes as 'real page-turners' since childhood.

'I’d watch them on television with my Dad who would always try to outwit the writer and guess the identity of the killer,' she recalls. 'To be honest, I only found out from my agent that Dial M for Murder had originally been a stage play and before that a television play. I’d been looking for a film or a novel to adapt for the theatre and I’d always assumed that Dial M for Murder had only ever been a film.'

Having directed this production of Dial M for Murder in 2009, Lucy is delighted to be revisiting the play for a UK tour this year.

'It feels a bit like unfinished business,' she says 'People lapped it up, actors got a tremendous amount out of it and audiences loved it. It’s a very entertaining piece and yet psychologically it is very acute. It’s about what lies beneath an apparently civilised veneer where there are subterranean currents at work. Since the play never leaves the flat, there is a feeling of claustrophobia that creates enormous suspense. It’s not a conventional whodunit - after all, you know who’s done it - and in a way, the audience becomes complicit with Tony. What is so wonderful is the way you get taken into Tony’s mind and you sense that he feels there is something deeply erotic about the idea of murdering a beautiful woman - his wife.'

In his calculating and cold-hearted way, Tony sets about spinning his web of murder and deceit. What motivates him? Sexual jealousy? Financial gain?

'Tony has been a big time tennis player and I think that he misses that world where he meant something. More crucially, he has a deep understanding of the fact that he cannot be left alone. He cannot bear the prospect of being locked out of his marriage. He’s a competitor and he’s in competition with another man. In a way, it’s a contest between the sportsman Tony and the writer Max. I don’t believe that Tony is jealous. His own sexuality is very ambiguous - he may even be asexual. There’s something very repressed about him. He wants to control everything and part of his plan is to confront Max with the body of his dead mistress.'

Lucy believes that Sheila and Max have already embarked on their affair but she takes a less censorious view of the character than Hitchcock who made his intentions plain by dressing Grace Kelly in his film in a vivid shade of red.

'He obviously saw Sheila as a scarlet woman,' suggests Lucy. 'I’d say that Sheila is essentially truthful but she’s living a lie in her marriage. She’s very much a woman of the 1950s - happy to be domestic, pampered but not spoilt, kind but without ambition.'

Inspector Hubbard, the dogged Scotland Yard detective, shares with Hitchcock a suspicious view of Sheila. Lucy has a very different take on the policeman from Hitchcock who cast the patrician-sounding John Williams in the role.

'Hubbard comes from a different class of men,' insists Lucy. 'He’s seen service in the war and he has worked his way up through the ranks. He seems to have an agenda against Sheila which he is trying to fulfil and which brings him close to making a massive mistake.'

In a sense, the instant popularity of Dial M for Murder, both in London and New York, indicates that it was capturing something of the spirit of the immediate post-war years. For a director, it must be a fascinating process to decide which elements of the play have lasted and which need to be thrown overboard.

'There were one or two lines which would have made an audience laugh which we simply cut rather than trying to rewrite,' explains Lucy. 'I see the character of Lesgate as very much a man of his time. He’s desperate. He’ll do anything to survive. He’s one of the casualties of the war and yet he’s been living off it since 1945, spinning yarns and sponging off a succession of landladies.'

The design for this production, by Mike Britton, combines elements of the traditional commercial theatre with some slightly unsettling touches, as Lucy explains.

'It will incorporate a very red curtain but also a moving set that will be revolving so slowly that most people will hardly notice it. It represents a kind of sliding uncertainty: it’s a simple idea that reflects the disturbing nature of the play.'

How does Lucy reconcile these two distinct strands of her working life? Is directing Dial M for Murder a very different experience from staging King Lear  or Titus Andronicus?

'Shakespeare represents a huge canvas and you have to unlock the world he has created and bring people into it. Shakespeare’s world is huge compared to a five-handed thriller but I think that I treat them both in the same way. I’m generally trying to release what’s in the play and I’m giving the actors permission to feel a sense of ownership of the piece. There’s a universality about Shakespeare which means that you can do almost anything you like to the plays. By contrast, Dial M for Murder is plot-driven. You can’t mess around with it.'

Knott apparently spent eighteen months secluded in his room, working incessantly on Dial M for Murder until he was completely satisfied with his narrative. Such attention to detail adds to the fun of seeing the piece in performance.

'It’s an astonishingly perfect play,' says Lucy. 'You believe in the characters and it gives you a real glimpse into the times. Ironically, I think that Hitchcock made the film too theatrical and I do find the film a bit stilted, a bit self-consciously of the theatre at times. If anything, I’m trying to make the play more cinematic. I’d love to think that the audiences will be working hard, looking out for the clues, and that they’ll continue the discussion afterwards in the pub. I also hope that they’ll debate the eternal triangle as represented in the play by Sheila, Tony and Max and that there will be a nuanced debate, one that is not too black and white.'