Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Deathtrap, Noel Coward Theatre

Review: Deathtrap, Noel Coward Theatre

Written for Culture Wars, 18.09.2010

There’s more than a whiff of The Master Builder about Ira Levin’s comedy-thriller. The once-celebrated crime writer Sidney Bruhl (Simon Russell Beale) hasn’t had a commercial hit in years. With funds running dry, he finds himself stalking the floorboards of his study with the perfect manuscript in his hands. Only it’s not his script, but that of bright-eyed whippersnapper Clifford Anderson (Jonathan Groff). There’s one thing for it, really: murder. Make a killing to make a killing. It’s not so much youth beating on the door, as the dour beating up the youth.

At least, that’s how the situation seems. Levin’s script, committed to celluloid in 1982 with Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve, turns somersaults like the showiest of gymnasts. While the first of these is genuinely leap-from-your-seat spectacular, the remainder can’t match it for kicks. Largely that’s because Levin’s is a thriller about thrillers. It becomes so meta-theatrical, that it begins to teach you its own rules. Both Bruhl and Anderson frequently remarking that the course of events would make a great thriller – so great, in fact, that each sits down to write a version of it. The various plots become too legible. We know by the end, for example, that any corpse cloaked in shadows will spring to life with a furious vengeance. The scares don’t shock.

But are they meant to? Isn’t Deathtrap, seen as a discussion of the form, a demolition of its own ambitions? After all, it plays by the rules of conventional dramaturgy, whereby structures are well-rounded and complete within a closed system, meaning that the clues are inevitably available. Levin takes that to the extreme, bringing on a supposed psychic, Helga ten Dorp, whose first prediction comes to pass – genuinely unexpectedly – forcing our attention to the inevitably of her second: that a ceremonial dagger hanging on the wall will kill Sidney Bruhl. Once the witches’ predictions are set in motion, Macbeth can chill, but it can never thrill. As Christopher Hart noted in the Sunday Times, Rob Howell’s set, which resembles the ribcage of a whale with its arching beams, takes the ‘gun on the wall’ principle to the nth degree. It’s every surface is hung with potential murder weapons: axes and crossbows, pikes and spikes, each a sword of Damocles hanging. Deathtrap knows that – as a play that aims to satisfy – its audience are halfway there already, considering the playwrights options. The thriller writer’s skill is in the wrongfooting with misdirection, but we’re on the lookout even there.

Levin gets all that. His entire narrative concerns two men consciously plotting – both on the page and against each other, seeking the unnoticed chink in the other’s defences to make their pounce. The question as to whether life imitates art or art life is all-pervasive. The writers are both killing for their art and simultaneously making an art of killing. Deathtrap is an admission of conceit and contrivance.

That’s why Levin opts for roguish humour and camp archness. He knows his hopes of thrilling flap about like a suffocating fish, so chooses instead to amuse. And with a cracking line in guiltily pleasurable one-liners, some of which creak like floorboards in a gothic novel, he has a knack for crowd-pleasing.

In Simon Russell Beale’s mouth, such groaners become lip-smacking. No one savours a forced pun like Russell Beale. He seems to taste the syllables, curling his lips into a half-smile that’s simultaneously shameful and smug. A little movement of the head, neither a nod nor a shake but a pompous vibration, follows like the aftershock of orgasm. This is Russell Beale playing, enjoying the ridiculousness of theatre in a way that many relish the furrowed rigour. He delights in sending himself up, tickling us as he goes. And yet, every now and then, there’s a rasp of cruelty at the back of his throat: a threat kicks out, almost hellish in voice, before the humming niceties return.

Unfair to expect it possibly, but Jonathan Groff is far less virtuosic. He’s got a nice balance of chest-puffed pride and demure sweetness, but Clifford’s precociousness seems to stem from the actor himself. There’s something gross about Groff, like a hairball you can’t quite bring yourself to swallow. He’s fine, but he’s greasy, almost over eager to demonstrate his talent, but doing nothing beyond the obvious.

As Bruhl’s wife, Claire Skinner is suitably anaemic, but Estelle Parsons is rather too full-bodied as Helga ten Dorp. Where Russell Beale keeps tight restraint on his zeal, Parsons overdoes it: popping her eyeballs and rolling her Germanic accent ad infinitum.

Yes, Deathtrap swallows itself in its own reflexive rotations, but as guilty pleasures go, it’s moreish.

Photograph: Hugo Glendinning

One Comment

  1. It's not as if Solness's fear/jealousy of Ragnar drives The Master Builder – indeed, he does eventually free Ragnar. Now, if Helga ten Dorp had persuaded Sidney Bruhl that he was still a primal force as a writer and should climb to the top of the Tony Awards or something… Sorry.

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