Christopher Gray talks about seeing Dial M For Murder and Ghost the Musical in Oxford

Is tension a cure for the common cold, or at least the symptoms of it? I ask because of an experience last Thursday at Oxford Playhouse’s matinee performance of Frederick Knott’s Dial M for Murder. Quite often at these afternoon shows, which attract a somewhat elderly audience, the actors can find themselves in unequal combat with coughing, snuffling occupants of the stalls. Last week, however, all was silence, with everyone paying rapt attention to the business on stage.

This is a phenomenon I have observed before. Also the converse, for there can be no doubt that a bored audience is a noisy one. With Knott’s thriller there was never a dull moment, though, with the intricately plotted action springing surprises at every turn. For me, these genuinely were surprises, since I had never before seen the play — though it was once a staple of repertory companies — or the film Alfred Hitchcock made of it.

The day before, I had been in a similar position at the New Theatre with Ghost The Musical, which I review today on our arts pages. This is based on a film that almost everyone knows, but not me. The huge enjoyment I derived from both shows owed a lot to my delight in the new. Each also featured excellent acting performances across the cast, encouraged by inspirational directors. Under Matthew Warchus, Ghost is notable for the hi-tech set pieces that punctuate the action, while Lucy Bailey suffused Dial M for Murder with an almost tangible aura of menace.

Her respect for the play was evident in what was seen on the stage. It was made clear, too, in a programme note. Like me, she had previously been unacquainted with it. “I had no idea such a play existed until my agent Penny Wesson urged me to read it. It’s a real page-turner — the characters felt intensely believable. It was erotic, tense and terrifying — I had to direct it.” Lucy is one of the most respected directors at work today. Her recent successes include a revival of Ivan Turgenev’s Fortune’s Fool at the Old Vic, King Lear with David Haig at the Theatre Royal Bath, and productions of The Winter’s Tale, The Taming of the Shrew and Julius Caesar for the RSC, seen in Stratford, London and New York.

The first entry on her impressive CV printed in last week’s programme was “the world premiere of Lessness by Samuel Beckett in consultation with the author”. This took place in February 1982 at Oxford Playhouse while Lucy was still a student, in her third year reading English at St Peter’s College. She was in fact one of the first two women to study there from 1979.

The opportunity to stage Lessness arose through her tutor Francis Warner’s friendship with the great man. He accompanied her on a trip to Paris to meet the 75-year-old writer. She found him convalescing after an illness.

They disagreed over the staging of the 20-minute playlet, in which six illuminated talking heads utter, as a critic put it, “a jumble of disconnected sentences”. But, according to the Daily Telegraph, “Beckett allowed Miss Bailey to do it her way rather than follow his instructions to the letter”.

Francis Warner played a part, too, in the career development of someone else whose work I enjoyed on the stage last week. This is Simon Beaufoy, the writer of The Full Monty, which has just opened at the Noël Coward Theatre. The St Peter’s alumnus told me in a recent interview that principles set out by the charismatic don still guide his writing career.