Playwright Frederick Knott, author of "Dial M for Murder" and "Wait Until Dark"

Playwright Frederick Knott

For someone who hated writing, Frederick Knott guaranteed he wouldn’t have to do too much of it to make a living when he penned his first play, the universally loved Dial M for Murder, which plays at Perth’s Classic Theatre Festival August 8 to 31 (54 Beckwith Street East, at Harvey). Given this is the Festival’s first murder mystery, the company is partnering with the Capital Crime Writers to present a series of mystery/crime author readings throughout the run of the show as well.

Originally rejected by eight separate producers, Dial M for Murder was finally picked up for BBC TV, and then found a home on the London stage and Broadway in 1952. Since then, the play has not only been turned into a smash Hollywood movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Ray Milland and Grace Kelly, but has been translated into scores of languages and played around the globe. Knott also penned the enormously popular thriller Wait Until Dark.

While the movie remains a must-see for any classic mystery fan, seeing the show live on stage is a wholly different experience, given the intimacy of the audience with the players and the tension that builds as a dogged Scotland Yard investigator hones in on the man plotting murder.

“A key aspect of this play that is often overlooked is that it contains within it elements of a love story, as well as the fact that it could have been torn from today’s headlines about women who are forced to defend themselves against acts of violence, but then pay the price of criminal charges and jail time,” explains Artistic Producer Laurel Smith.

The Dial M cast is made up of a collection of crackerjack Toronto and Ottawa performers, both newcomers and Festival veterans. The tale follows fading tennis star Tony Wendice, played by Greg Campbell, a veteran screen and stage actor who has worked extensively with VideoCabaret, in Trudeau and the FLQ, Life and Times of Mackenzie King, The Great War, Confederation, Mackenzie/Papineau Rebellion, The War of 1812 (this latter at Stratford Festival), and who has appeared in The Kennedys, Murdoch Mysteries and Against the Wild. The character of Tony is unhappily married and jealous of his wife, Margot, played by Ottawa’s Jennifer Vallance, who recently appeared as Paula in Empire of Sand and Cindy in Sparks (both with New Ottawa Repertory Theatre). Margot Wendice is trying to end a long-distance romance with the lovelorn, cynical screenwriter Mark Halliday, played by Festival veteran Scott Clarkson (previously seen in the Classic Theatre Festival’s The Marriage-Go-Round, Two For the Seesaw and The Fourposter).

Determined to bump off his wife and inherit her fortune, Tony hires the unsavoury Captain Lesgate, a perfect role for the versatile Ottawa character actor Richard Gélinas, who starred in last year’s The Star-Spangled Girl. Some mayhem ensues, and Margot, convicted of murder, faces execution. In order to clear up the mess, an intrepid Scotland Yard investigator (played by Toronto’s Clyde Whitham, who recently appeared in Fantastic Extravagance at the Toronto Fringe, and in Scheherazade at the Next Stage Festival), must diligently pursue the real criminal to save Margot’s life.

“I was always intrigued with the idea that somebody would plan a crime, and then you see that everything doesn’t turn out right,” playwright Knott once explained. “You can plan a murder in great detail and then put the plan into action, and invariably something goes wrong and then you have to improvise. And in the improvisation you trip up and make a very big mistake.”

To enhance the excitement of the Classic Theatre Festival’s first murder mystery, a series of “Saturday Night Specials” will feature mystery and crime writers reading from their works at 7pm prior to the 8pm shows. The August lineup features some of the region’s top authors, including Barbara Fradkin & Vicki Delany (August 16), R.J. Harlick & Linda Wiken (August 23) and Brenda Chapman & Thomas Curran (August 30).

Saturday Night Special attendees will get a chance to meet the authors, buy their books and have them signed, and, following the evening performance of Dial M for Murder, take home a good read for the cottage or backyard.

Meantime, the Perth through the Ages theatrical historic walking tour, with the popular play, The Preacher and the Leading Lady, continues until August 31, Wednesday to Sunday at 11 am.

Tickets for Dial M for Murder (which runs Wednesday to Saturday at 8 pm, with 2 pm matinees every Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday) are available online at classictheatre.ca or by calling toll-free at 1-877-283-1283.


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