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Tag Archives: simon russell beale

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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London Assurance, National Theatre

The mid-nineteenth century is pretty much the doldrums of British drama; between Sheridan and, really, Oscar Wilde the pickings are slim and the figures far from towering. Dion Boucicault’s London Assurance, which has just been revived for the Olivier Theatre, is automatically something of a tall midget in being one of the most celebrated plays of the 1840s.

In dramatic terms, it’s fairly simplistic and comes out of an age when characters were not called upon to demonstrate more than one aspect to their personalities and tended conveniently to announce their types through their names. Boucicault accordingly gives us the foppish, fashionable Sir Harcourt Courtly and the interfering lawyer Mr Meddle (though exuberant horsewoman Lady Gay Spanker probably seemed a bit more wholesome in 1841).

The plot is a standard issue comedy of manners, revolving around Sir Harcourt’s trip to the country to take a much younger wife. The writing doesn’t have much more depth than the dramatis personae, but does a relentless job of piling on every comic complication imaginable. By the middle of Act 3, everyone seems to be deceiving everyone else and not a conversation goes by without somebody else to overhear from a hiding place. The clunkiness with which some of the complications are contrived – there’s a particularly ludicrous will invoked, which seems to have been written by an elderly relative with a love for farce determined to indulge himself even in death – is tempered by the exuberance with which multiple plot lines are piled up. It’s also a refreshing change that the young romantics, usually the most colourless members of any cast, are themselves allowed to be zestily deceitful and to take chunks out of each other with all the gusto of the more purely comical characters. Ultimately, though, the play amounts to nothing more than an elaborate sitcom with no higher aim than to entertain.

Its success on the stage, then, relies entirely on its production. Nicholas Hytner’s direction is unobtrusively efficient and the staging is grand enough, just about, to justify the Olivier stage without feeling lost. The setting and design are generally realist and period appropriate, with the odd flash of expensive stagecraft to justify the ticket prices (See a goose, plucked onstage! See a house with a working chimney!). The cast are called upon to breathe life into the whole enterprise, and meet with mixed success. Most of the members of the company go through the comic motions briskly, if unexceptionally; Mark Addy is a suitably bluff Squire Harkaway, and Richard Briers makes the most out of an extended cameo. Fiona Shaw tears into her part with obvious gusto and seems delighted to be playing a straightforward, likeable person for a change.

The weak link is Matt Cross, playing the mercurial Mr Dazzle, who seems to inhabit a different world from the rest of the cast, and who is saddled with the painful accent known as RSC Cockney, generally heard on any Shakespearean character who speaks prose. He grates where he should charm and lovable roguishness comes across as weaselly cheating. He is countered, though, and the rest of the cast put pretty much in the shade, by Simon Russell Beale’s extraordinary Sir Harcourt. Bloated and red-faced, like an over-ripe plum poured into waistcoat and pantaloons, yet daintily convinced of his own grace and beauty, he’s a masterclass of comic acting and is ruthlessly funny both physically and verbally. As an actor he is totally without vanity, which allows him to make Sir Harcourt’s own self-regard painfully, wonderfully misplaced whether he’s showing off his dancing form or plying his seductive charm. Whenever he’s on stage, which happily is for much of the play, the whole enterprise takes glorious flight. When he’s away, though, the edges begin to fray and everything seems slightly mechanical; it’s not so much heartless as a bit pointless.

 
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Posted by on March 3, 2010 in Theatre

 

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