“Would you kill someone for a successful play?”
It’s a funny thing the theatre: when Deathtrap was first announced, I had little interest in going to see it. I’m not particularly enamoured (even though I know it is probably heretical) of Simon Russell Beale, I’ve never seen Glee so the name Jonathan Groff meant nothing to me and even when Estelle Parson was announced, replacing Anna Massey, it was another name that meant nothing to me. So, cultural ignoramus that I apparently am, it took some persuasion to get me to go along to the first preview. But given that there is a very good deal on preview tickets (which is still available now), off I trotted to the Noël Coward Theatre.
Deathtrap is a 1978 comedy thriller by Ira Levin about Sidney Bruhl, a has-been playwright who is now reduced to living off his wealthy wife in Connecticut so when he receives a fresh exciting new play, also entitled Deathtrap, from one of his former students, he decides it is good enough to kill for. I really can’t say more than that without ruining it, but safe to say that the plot is full of sinister twists and turns, reversals, double crosses, and possibly even triple crosses. This is a spoiler-free review but if you have no idea about the story then maybe you should read it after you’ve seen it in case I inadvertently give anything away.
It is good but for a thriller, it takes a long time to become, well, thrilling. The first act is so full of talking and whilst Russell Beale throws out bon mot after witty one-liner (so much so it is hard to believe that the character has authored so many flops), it did begin to flag for me. Then, once the shenanigans begin, it bursts into life and the surprises and shocks come flying at you with an impressive verve. Maybe the ‘slow’ beginning is deliberate in order to maximise the impact of what is to follow but I would hope the pacing improves some before opening night.
But then, in the second act it suffers the same problem, of being overly wordy, especially straight after the interval. Part of the issue is the constant self-referencing: the amazing play being tussled over is also called Deathtrap and the characters in the play are aware of the fact that what is happening to them would make a great play and there’s a lot of recapping of what has happened so the suspense that has built up dissipates somewhat. Whilst the device of the characters writing their own ending in front of us should be amazing, it doesn’t quite yet have the requisite ominous feeling that a thriller needs until we’re near the end.
I can’t really comment on the performances as to do so would reveal too much, but safe to say fans of Simon Russell Beale won’t be disappointed as he has a sardonic comic character with nicely hidden depth suggested at throughout and had a good relationship with Claire Skinner as his nervy wife Myra. Jonathan Groff as the younger playwright Clifford makes an appealing West End debut, Terry Beaver does well in the minor part of Porter Milgrim, a New York lawyer, but I left a little bemused by Estelle Parsons as local psychic Helga. She was good, although there were some projection issues which combined with her thick accent meant I lost a fair few of her lines, but I was surprised to see her every exit get a round of applause, there was clearly a lot of affection for her.
The set looks impressive, a wooden floored study in the Buhler’s cabin with a nice set of rafters and dressed well, full of armoury and weaponry and also a bizarrely furry staircase. It allows for the twists and turns to be played out most effectively, enhanced by Hugh Vanstone’s lighting and Simon Baker’s sound. If you do not know the story, then this will be great fun for you, as it doesn’t really outstay its welcome even if it drags occasionally (this was a first preview after all) but I do wonder how substantial it really is. The thriller element is good but not the most sophisticated and so if you know the twists already, I’m not sure how gripping it would be for you. I could be wrong, but this was an entertaining enough evening at the theatre anyway.
Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes (with interval, though subject to change)
Programme cost: £3.50
Booking until 22nd January
Note: some smoking and some flashing lights