wed 21/04/2021

Deathtrap, Noël Coward Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Deathtrap, Noël Coward Theatre

Deathtrap, Noël Coward Theatre

Simon Russell Beale is wonderfully sardonic in Ira Levin's comedy thriller

It’s a rather difficult task to describe anything that occurs in Ira Levin’s marvellous old warhorse of a comedy thriller as it contains so many twists, turns, bluffs, double bluffs, triple - even quadruple - bluffs that any description of the plot holds for only a few minutes of stage time. Added to which, nobody and nothing is exactly what they first appear to be.

All of which makes Deathtrap a superb evening in the theatre in Matthew Warchus’s engaging revival, even if you know the plot from the 1982 film version with Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve, or saw one of the 1,793 performances in its original Broadway production in 1978, which remains the Great White Way’s longest-running thriller to date.

Sidney Bruhl (Simon Russell Beale) is a middle-aged playwright who has the occasional hit among his whodunnits (“Shadow at the Window”, “In For the Kill”, “Web of Danger”), but now has writer’s block and is living on his wife’s declining fortune. Into his life comes Clifford Anderson, a student at one of his writing seminars, who sends his first play, "Deathtrap” to Sidney for his comments. The older playwright enviously describes Clifford's play as “a perfectly constructed five-character, two-act thriller with laughs in all the right places”.

Desperate for a Broadway hit, Sidney, along with wife Myra (Claire Skinner), comes up with a nefarious plot to lure Clifford to their remote Connecticut colonial home (filled with weaponry mementoes from his plays), kill him and pass off the script - sure to be a commercial hit - as Sidney's handiwork. When the puppy-eyed but ambitious Clifford (Jonathan Groff, Jessie St James from Glee) arrives, every plot device in Deathtrap becomes a mirror of itself in “Deathtrap” (or maybe that should be the other way round), and a good deal of farce, hokum and inventive deaths follow.

Although it is ostensibly a thriller, Deathtrap is really a play within a play about the mechanics of theatre; Levin’s script fair crackles with in-jokes about lawyers, critics, producers and directors - “It's so good, even a gifted director couldn't hurt it,” Sidney says about "Deathtrap" - and neat little aphorisms such as “Nothing recedes like success”. Russell Beale delivers his bons mots with sardonic aplomb (and there's a surprising, breath-catching moment when we realise that he may actually, genuinely, for real this time, love his protégé), Groff plays Clifford with a cute but steely appeal, and Skinner gives the nervy Myra just the right degree of controlled hysteria. Estelle Parsons is deliriously batty as the psychic neighbour Helga ten Dorp, complete with daft accent, while Terry Beaver makes the most of his small but crucial role as Sidney’s lawyer (think of all those plot devices about wills and things).

Rob Howell’s hammer-beamed, gothic set is terrific, and Hugh Vanstone’s lighting design is wonderfully atmospheric, but Gary Yershon’s music often feels intrusive and - particularly during the denouement - doesn’t add anything to the suspense. But the convoluted plot remains gripping (despite the odd longueur in this production), there are some real shocks and the laughs do indeed come in all the right places.


"and there's a surprising, breath-catching moment when we realise that he may actually, genuinely, for real this time, love his protégé" I watched the movie and I don't remember that. I live in Argentina and there's no way for me to go to London, so could someone please tell me more about that moment? Thanks.

Sorry, can't give away any plot devices. But regardless of that, this isn't a stage version of the film,; it's the original stage play with a couple of small additions by the director.

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