Deathtrap. By Ira Levin. At the Noel Coward Theatre, London. Directed by Matthew Warchus. With Simon Russell Beale, Jonathan Groff, Claire Skinner. As seen on 15th January 2011.
Ira Levin is probably best known for his thrillers "The Boys from Brazil" and "The Stepford Wives", but as Matthew Warchus' revival proves, his stage play "Deathtrap" deserves greater recognition as a darkly comic classic of the genre.
Sidney Bruhl (Russell Beale) is an ageing playwright with a string of hits to his name, but whose best years have passed him by. After he gives a lecture at a university, he is contacted by one of the students, thriller obsessive Clifford Anderson (Groff), but inviting the aspiring writer to his home to help with his new play - entitled "Deathtrap", no less - could prove to be his undoing. Wife Myra (Skinner) is driven to near hysterics by her suspicion that her husband intends to kill off his talented protege and take the credit for what could be the next stage sensation, and a clairvoyant's (Jane Lambert) ominous appearance only serves to heighten her anxiety that there are evil forces at work. As murder and mayhem descend on the Bruhl residence, a deadly game of cat and mouse ensues between Sidney and Anderson, with the young writer determined to write for himself the perfect denouement to the perfect crime, exactly as he planned...
Levin's script is gleefully Hitchcockian, sending the audience reeling with laughter and gasping with fright in equal proportions, and it is well served by an ensemble cast who clearly look as though they're enjoying themselves, despite their shortcomings. Simon Russell Beale is intensely compelling in his portrait of a man eaten up with jealousy and self-loathing; Jonathan Groff, making his West End debut, excels as Anderson, his character's ruthless ambition lurking behind his natural, twinkly-eyed charisma. While Claire Skinner's American accent leaves something to be desired, she capably pulls off Myra's histrionics, though this gives her little chance to show her real versatility as an actress. Terry Beaver pulls in a fine performance as Sidney's lawyer, Porter Milgrim, but is underutilised; Jane Lambert as clairvoyant Helga ten Dorp suffers from the opposite problem.
"Deathtrap" works on several levels: as a metafictional feast for thriller fans with tongue placed firmly in cheek (nodding to other writers in the canon, such as Frederick Knott, and mischievously messing with genre conventions); as a comment on the cynicism of luckless writers; as a wickedly black comedy. But most of all, it's terrific fun from start to finish; it's a shame the play did not stay for much longer. The West End needs more than its fair share of classy murder stories to kill for these days.
Rating: **** 1/2 out of 5
Age recommendation: 12+, some violence, sex references.