In her review of the 1982 film version of Ira Levin’s Deathtrap, Pauline Kael memorably described the play as “a machine for making money, cranking its way across the stage.” That makes it pretty much ideal material for Matthew Warchus, a specialist in slick-and-soulless West End entertainments and director of the new super-swish production of the play that opened at London’s Noël Coward Theatre in August. Premiered on Broadway in 1978, Deathtrap is a twisty comic meta-thriller that keeps commenting on itself as it focuses on the cat-and-mouse games played out between a pair of writers. Sidney Bruhl is an author of murder-mysteries who resides in the East Hamptons with his wife Myra and is badly in need of another Broadway hit. When he receives a crack play called "Deathtrap" from a former student, Clifford Anderson, he plots to steal it, inviting the young man to his home with either collaboration or murder in mind. It’s difficult to say much more about what happens after this point without spoiling the surprises, but suffice it to say that Levin takes delight in wrong-footing the audience at every possible moment, while also satirising the ambitions and insecurities of writers - and the apparatus of the thriller genre itself.
The set-up of Deathtrap proves rather better than its pay-off; oddly, the more revelations that pile up the less engaging the play becomes. Despite a couple of well-staged jump-in-the-seat moments, it’s not that frightening either (the laughs cancel out the scares), and, as Kael rightly notes, the central twist is a steal from Clouzot's Les Diaboliques (1955). In addition, the play’s self-reflexive commentary sometimes proves irritating: it often sounds like Levin is congratulating himself for the ingenuity of his own plotting.
All that being said, you probably couldn’t hope for a more efficient production than this one, which is elegantly designed by Rob Howell, boasts superb lighting, music and sound-design by Hugh Vanstone, Gary Yershon and Simon Baker, and benefits from the expert work of a deluxe cast. It’s a rare treat to see Simon Russell Beale in a more contemporary role (his last significant one was as Phillip in The Philanthropist at the Donmar Warehouse back in 2005) and he brings a devilish mixture of bitter wit and calculation to Sidney, along with moments of odd vulnerability. His sense of timing, the way he holds back a crucial word to charge it with meaning and tension, and the prodigious ease with which he commands the stage is always inspiring, and I never cease to delight in his skill as a performer. He works brilliantly with the young American actor Jonathan Groff (alumnus of a TV show called Glee that’s quite popular apparently…), who makes a spirited West End debut here as Clifford. Completing the American contingent, there’s ripe support from Estelle Parsons (most familiar to British audiences from Bonnie and Clyde  and Roseanne perhaps) as the Dutch psychic who might be more attuned to the occult than Sidney would like to believe, and from the M. Emmet Walsh-voiced Terry Beaver in the small role of Sidney’s attorney. Finally there’s Claire Skinner, who invests Myra with customary feeling, subtlety and grace. The intensity of her delivery of the line “It frightens me” provides the production with one of its genuine chills.
Instantly disposable, Deathtrap is the kind of play that leaves practically no residue on the viewer. But this production makes it pretty good fun while it lasts. It's booking until 22nd January 2011. Website here; trailer below.