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Reviving Dial M for Murder play is a calling for director

It's not easy getting Lucy Bailey on the phone.

SLIGHT RETURN: Lucy Bailey first directed Dial M For Murder in 2009, and wants to retain the intimate feeling of that show in this production.
SLIGHT RETURN: Lucy Bailey first directed Dial M For Murder in 2009, and wants to retain the intimate feeling of that show in this production.

For a director who is reviving her production of Frederick Knott's play, Dial M For Murder, in which a telephone call plays a crucial part in a botched domestic homicide, this may be for the best.

When contact is eventually made it transpires that actor Iain Glen has been forced to drop out of Bailey's production of Turgenev's Fortune's Fool at the Old Vic theatre in London, and the headache of recasting and redirecting that show inbetween overseeing technical rehearsals for Dial M For Murder has left her little time for talking.

Only when things settle down does Bailey have a chance to take stock on a show she first directed for the Fiery Angel company at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds in 2009.

"It's very exciting," Bailey says in Colchester, where Dial M For Murder opens prior to arriving in Edinburgh next week. "Sometimes going back to something you can get a bit haunted by what you were doing before, but my approach has just been to forget about it.

"I've cast very different actors this time round, so it's going to be different in that way. The technical side of things has been very much about 'What did we do last time?' When we did it before, it was quite an intimate affair, so it's about trying to retain a sense of that as well."

Knott's play might not be an obvious choice for Bailey, who has developed a reputation for a bloody and passionate approach to her productions of Shakespeare.

It is a similar sort of passion that Bailey has applied to Dial M For Murder.

"When I read it there was this basic feeling that it was a real page-turner," Bailey says. "I always do this really childish thing, in that if I can't put a play down then I have to do it."

In this respect, Bailey sounds equally as obsessive as the play's author.

"Frederick Knott wrote it in his mother's house," Bailey explains, "and he would sit there in his dressing gown, and his mother would leave his meals at the door. It took him 18 months, and it shows, because the attention to detail is meticulous. It's not a whodunnit. It's about why."

Dial M for Murder was originally produced on television, and only made it to the stage for the first time in 1952 prior to it being picked up by Hitchcock for his 1954 feature film. Knott, who wrote the screenplay, went on to pen Write Me A Murder in 1960, and, in 1966, Wait Until Dark, which was also made into a film.

"Wait Until Dark is a brilliant play," Bailey says. "I remember when I saw the film I was so scared by it."

Any forthcoming production of the play by Bailey, however, is currently on hold. This is in part down to rights issues, though is mainly due to ongoing work commitments. Now Fortune's Fool is up and running, Bailey is preparing to revisit Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus at the Globe.

"That's a thriller," she says of the play. "That's a bloody massacre."

Dial M For Murder isn't Bailey's first flirtation with material more readily associated with the big-screen. Dark thrillers with an erotic edge in particular have captured her imagination, with stage versions of The Postman Always Rings Twice, Baby Doll and Don't Look Now featuring in her canon.

The Postman Always Rings Twice was taken from a novel by James M Cain, and was most recently filmed in 1981 by Bob Rafelson, with a screenplay by David Mamet. Baby Doll saw Tennessee Williams adapt his own short play, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, for a classic film made by Elia Kazan.

Don't Look Now may have started life as a short story by Daphne du Maurier, but became best known via Nicolas Roeg's 1973 film.

"A lot of the films I saw when I was very young had a huge impact," Bailey explains of her choices, "and when I got older I looked into this library of the imagination.

"Baby Doll came out of seeing it when I was fifteen, with the opening scene especially affecting me.

"But I didn't go to the films when I was directing them. I went to the source material, and it's different again with Dial M For murder which, as a film, when I saw it I didn't think was Hitchcock's best. I always preferred The Birds or Rear Window. I thought that Dial M For Murder always seemed very self-conscious and traditional. But looking at the play, you really have to get under the skin of it."

Prior to Bailey hooking up with them, Fiery Angel had previously produced a stage version of another Hitchcock classic, The Thirty-Nine Steps, which was taken from John Buchan's novel.

While that show, directed by former Citizens Theatre stalwart Maria Aitken and still running in the West End, made a virtue of its small cast by turning it into a poor theatre pastiche, in terms of her approach to Dial M For Murder Bailey plays it straight.

"Dial M For Murder is about killing a beautiful woman," she says. "It sounds terrible, but I suppose there's a vicarious thrill we get from that, from seeing this beautiful person in terror of evil.

"But, while there's this desire to not see somebody so beautiful get hurt, in a way we're also behind the killer because he's so charming. The play's very claustrophobic and intense, but it's also erotic, dangerous, witty and impeccably polite, and that leaves a lot of dark undercurrents to play with."

Dial M For Murder, King's Theatre, Edinburgh, February 18-22.

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