Deathtrap was written by Ira Levin in 1978 and still holds the record for the longest running comedy-thriller on Broadway, having run for a grand total of 1,809 performances. The play runs with more twists and turns than a dizzy ballerina and excels in both the comedic scripting and the sudden bursts into thriller, enhanced by the naturally lighthearted default of the play and seemingly effortless witticism with which Levin laces the script.
Sidney Bruhl (Simon Russell Beale) is a playwright in dire need of a box office smash having spent the last eighteen years living off his last success and his wife’s dwindling monies so when one of the students on his seminar course, Clifford (Jonathan Groff), sends him the manuscript of his ‘firstborn child’ he is torn between the urge to steal the play or to collaborate on it. The question is; is the play (Deathtrap) worth killing for?
At first glance of the set one is already inclined to answer in the affirmative. Bruhl’s living room (which acts as the sole location for the play) is elegantly designed down to even the subtlest detail, the walls and rafters adorned with antique weapons and inspirations for Bruhl’s thriller plays. It’s enough to excite the twelve-year old inside any of us.
The magnificence of the set is, however, rightfully overshadowed by the quality of the acting. Simon Russell Beale plays Sidney Bruhl in such an assured and familiar way that he is wholly convincing in the part, engaging the audience in the dilemma that faces him. It’s not an easy script to act by any means. The constant seesaw between comedy and thriller is difficult to gauge and coupled with the ever-present meta-theatrical elements to the play (at one point Bruhl comments on a character moving stage right, just as Clifford does so) it means that keeping abreast of the constant changes at any particular time is demanding work. Beale, however, makes it look almost second nature and captures perfectly the subtle nuances in Bruhl’s character, masterfully adapting to each new revelation and thus making it easier for the audience to understand as well. Without such a strong performance in the lead part, the play could very easily become hard to follow but Beale prevents this. He provides what is a very strong foundation indeed for his fellow actors to build on, which they do almost without fault.
Claire Skinner (Outnumbered), Myra Bruhl, plays her in a way that you are always expecting more from her character, adding again to the suspense and uncertainty that permeates the play. During the interval I puzzled with my companion as to whether or not there would be more to come from her or whether Levin was just writing the script in such a brilliant way that anything, including the impossible, seemed plausible.
Jonathan Groff (Glee) sinks his teeth into the darker side of Clifford Anderson in a fashion that becomes thoroughly enjoyable to behold as all the twists begin to materialise. His onstage relationship with Beale stands out as one that works very well, the two comfortable with each other and able to bounce off each other to deliver what the parts require them to.
It strikes me that one of the criteria of a good suspense-driven thriller is one that keeps the audience in the dark as long as possible over what is to happen and that the best way to do this is to keep as many options open as possible. The dedication that must have gone into the writing of a show that wholly succeeds in doing this has clearly been mirrored in almost every aspect of the show, from the meticulous detail on the set to the subtle nuances of the acting.
There was very little that I didn’t enjoy. The addition of birdsong at intermittent intervals has never been something I’ve been a fan of and this production was no different. It didn’t really add anything and although it wasn’t actively distracting I don’t think it was entirely justified. The same can be said for the music that was used, obviously intended to dramatise suspense and fear but in actuality did very little towards this. I think that such effects serve a better purpose on television and are very hard to work into the theatre and even the talent behind this production seemed to struggle. My only other gripe would be that the programme (which I always like to pore over) had remarkably little to do with the production, which upset me.
These are, however, minor quibbles with a show that was engaging on every level and thoroughly enjoyable. There may be doubters about how a thriller can be comedic but I can assure you that once you’ve seen this (and I urge you to) that it will be clear as the full moon on a dark and stormy night. At least, it was to me when my companion went from laughing to himself to leaping halfway across my seat in shock within a couple of seconds.
If you want to engage in something that twists and surprises you between bouts of laughter, I can think of no better show than this, especially with such a good team behind it. You’ll regret it if you don’t go.
In the words of Sidney Bruhl, ‘even a gifted director couldn’t hurt it.’
Written by Ira Levin; directed by Matthew Warchus; at the Noel Coward Theatre; starring Simon Russell Beale, Claire Skinner and Jonathan Groff.
John Ord (06/10/2010)