Deathtrap, Duke of York’s Theatre

15 Sep

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.


Posted by on September 15, 2010 in Theatre


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3 responses to “Deathtrap, Duke of York’s Theatre

  1. mrconsiderate

    September 16, 2010 at 10:51 am

    I think this is spot on in all regards. Simon Russell Beale and Jonathan Groff do carry the thing, to the extent that you almost wish they carried it a bit further. There are glancingly serious notes struck in here that could be played with a bit more force (Bruhl’s declaration of love in the second act, for instance) – though maybe not enough of them to drag the thing entirely out of chuckling whimsy.

    I also thought it could have stood to be a bit scarier. It’s hardly an explicit play, but the make-you-jump moments all seemed a bit PG-13: a kind of tacit acknowledgement that the whole thing is a museum piece. Almost as if it just wouldn’t do to push the material further than it’s been pushed before.

  2. elsiem

    September 16, 2010 at 11:37 am

    It made ME jump. And I passed a poster for it on the tube this morning and it made me smile when I remembered how much fun it was. That said, I also agree with everything in the review.

  3. Kate

    September 16, 2010 at 12:10 pm

    The main jumpy bit in Act One did make me jump, and it did properly entertain me pretty much throughout, so perhaps this comes across as more ungenerous than I meant to be. I just always felt consciously entertained rather than involved, and I remember feeling glad that mainstream theatre has generally got a bit more sophisticated.

    The poster will never stop making me smile. The gusto with which SRB is wielding the shovel and pulling his face is utterly delightful.


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