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Deathtrap, Duke of York’s Theatre

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.

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Posted by on September 15, 2010 in Theatre

 

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Bedroom Farce, Duke of York’s Theatre

A few years ago, my mum went to see a film at one of the 11am “silver screenings”, which are aimed at pensioners. (She would, I am sure, like me to tell you at this point that she wasn’t, and isn’t, a pensioner, but she does work odd hours.) 11am screenings are never very busy, and the only other audience members at this one were a group of adults with special needs, on a day out. There was a lot of vocal engagement, and at one point, when a dog died (she can’t remember the film; I am guessing it might have been There’s Something About Mary), they all gasped and shouted, in unison, “HE’S KILLED THE DOG!”.

I tell you this story because her experience was in many ways similar to the one we had at the Duke of York’s theatre on Tuesday night. The play itself was unobjectionable: gently funny, with some excellent performances and pleasing staging. But it was hard to give it our fullest attention, because we were surrounded by the liveliest audience I’ve ever been a part of. It was as though they had all been specially recruited for their honking laughs and tendency to shout through some of the lines. One man, a few rows in front of us, made a noise several times which I thought was a snore, until he elongated it and I realised it was a genuine “harrumph”. I’ve never heard one of those before.

There’s no attempt to update the play, written in 1975. Peter Hall’s revival revels in its 1970s-ness, and the decor and props in the three bedrooms are elequent testimony to a set designer with a keen eye for detail. The casting of Sara Crow, better known to you and me as the blonde one from the Philadelphia ads, only adds to the nostalgia. She is very good, as is the rest of this cast of eight, ably led by David Horovitch and Jenny Seagrove, who is so beautiful that I kept forgetting to pay attention when she spoke. But although there are some great lines, the enormous bellowing reaction of the audience to most of them was so disproportionate that I kept thinking “Well, that wasn’t that funny.”

But I think it probably is quite funny. And it’s very pacy, so that I never found myself wondering how soon it would end, which I do at most plays (don’t tell anyone I told you that). And more than that, it’s very sweet and silly, and reminscent of a time when theatrical comedy was rather a gentlemanly pastime, and you could go to the theatre and watch a revue. I would like to go to more revues. Why aren’t there more of them? Perhaps someone should start a campaign.

Anyway, Bedroom Farce does what it says on the tin, and if what you want is an unchallenging and lightly comic night out, it’s the perfect choice. Just try not to go when the crazy people are there.

 
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Posted by on June 3, 2010 in Comedy, Theatre

 

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