Ira Levin’s Deathtrap is a period piece in more ways than one; although it was achingly contemporary when it was written in 1978, its latest revival at the Duke of York’s Theatre sticks with its original setting, and the manual typewriters onstage and lovingly recreated fashion initially give it a cosy quaintness. More importantly, and ultimately more problematically, it also represents a genre which has fallen utterly out of style in modern commercial theatre: the comedy thriller, played on a realistic set in a realistic style.
It’s not really possible to discuss the story in any depth since it relies purely on its plot, and the theatrical brio with which it’s presented, for its value. However, it’s harmless to say that events are kicked off as past-his-prime playwright Sidney Bruhl receives a copy of a brilliant new play – Deathtrap – by his eager acolyte, Clifford Anderson, and wonders how he might best profit from what is obviously a hit in waiting. Yes, we’re in, gently, the world of meta-theatre though it’s played more as a prolonged wink to the audience than as pyrotechnic Pirandellian deconstruction. Characters discuss twists, motivations and the art of the stage thriller while repeatedly name-dropping the biggest hits of the genre: Sleuth and Dial M for Murder. In one of the subtler allusions, there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first act.
It’s all amusing, if thin, stuff and it’s well planned and written enough to justify its self-indulgence, though the second act drags a little as the plot mechanics become ever more tortuous and unconvincing. The play lives and dies based on the production, which is very slick throughout, and by the acting which, among the main cast, is a curate’s egg. I worry that I do little but rave about Simon Russell Beale but he will insist on deserving it; he’s such a consistently outstanding stage actor that in small scale pieces like this he disappears so completely into the part that it’s easy to forget he’s doing anything at all. He’s witty and weary and sells everything he does, and everywhere the play goes, completely. Claire Skinner fares slightly less well as Bruhl’s wife Myra. She seems uncomfortable with her American accent and retains an air of the school play about her. Fortunately, though, Simon Russell Beale is principally matched with Broadway star Jonathan Groff who tears into his part with gusto; it’s not an especially subtle performance but he hits all the right notes.
The principal duo keep the evening running along nicely and with enough nerve and energy to make the play work within its self-defined ambitions to amuse and mildly thrill. It’s solidly entertaining but it left me grateful that the scope of most modern West End productions seems so much more ambitious than what feels like a chamber-piece. Deathtrap feels, thirty-two years on, like the death rattle of a genre, but at least it died with a smile on its face.