Deathtrap @ Noël Coward Theatre, London

cast list
Simon Russell Beale, Jonathan Groff, Estelle Parsons, Claire Skinner, Terry Beaver

directed by
Matthew Warchus

In order to generate publicity for his 1959 thriller The Tingler the film director William Castle is supposed to have installed buzzers under the seats of certain cinemas in which the film was playing in order to give his audience a rather literal jolt.

From the way the women in front of me leapt into the air during a key moment in Matthew Warchus revival of Ira Levins 1978 comedy thriller Deathtrap it looked a lot like Castle had been tinkering with their chairs.

For the most part Warchus’ production is a slick and solid revival of a play that doesn’t quite make the case for all the love that has been lavished on it. There are a couple of proper shocks but theres also a constant flow of self-reference, which is amusing at first but becomes a little tedious towards the end.

The play begins with faded playwright Sidney Bruhl receiving a manuscript in the post from a former student. Bruhl hasn’t had a hit in years and has been living off his wifes money so this play, a well-constructed, marketable five-character, two-act thriller with laughs in all the right places, is the kind of thing he might literally kill for. He invites the young writer to his Connecticut cottage to talk things through as his increasingly nervous wife, Myra, watches on, worried about what her husband might be driven to do.

The story that follows is stuffed with twists and bluffs and double crosses. Part of the joy comes in the element of surprise, in not seeing these turns and lurches coming (the programme urges the audience not to give things away and spoil it for others), so its difficult to discuss the plot further without divulging too much.

Levins play doubles as a pastiche of the genre it inhabits and the characters are forever pointing out how whats happening would make a good play. In fact in the second act, one of them begins to write that very play, adding to the already thick layer of self-reference. The first half is rather talky and slow to get going but, once its been established that nothing is quite what it initially appears, Warchus maintains an admirably high level of tension (that fact that Bruhl’s home is strewn with weapons, theatrical souvenirs and antique finds, helps considerably in this regard).

Though its probably fair to assume that the meta elements of Levins play felt fresher when it was first staged, the constant commenting on its own structure, which begins as a fairly witty conceit, soon becomes an overused device, one that acknowledges but doesnt compensate for the occasional weaknesses of the writing; it sometimes feels as if the play is not so much winking at the audience as winking at itself in a mirror just over their shoulder.

That said, Simon Russell Beale is predictably delightful as Bruhl; his timing is impeccable, each gesture and glance well-judged, and he gives the character a surprising level of emotional complexity, one perhaps not supplied by the writing. Glee’s Jonathan Groff is able enough as the young playwright, Clifford, respectful and eager but also clearly ambitious. Claire Skinner however seems ill at ease as Myra, her accent wavering, and Estelle Parsons casts asides any notion of nuance in her cameo as the psychic Swede, Helga ten Dorp.

Rob Howells beamed barn-like set is impressive and full of shadows, an effect heightened during the inevitable climactic thunderstorm. But though the production as a whole is undemanding and fun, it can feel a bit overstretched and at times a bit self-satisfied; its entertaining nature however helps override some of these niggles.

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