Review – Deathtrap, Noël Coward Theatre

Wednesday 25 August 2010

Co-operating, or possibly competing, cross-generational writers. One or the other or both may have murderous intentions towards the other. But who is the cat and who is the mouse? Can writers ever be friends? Or is death only ever a disagreement about prepositions away?

Violent thoughts are rarely very far from the surface when the Whingers are working on a “project” so Deathtrap turned out, yet again, to be a bit close to home one way and another. And what inspiration there was to be found in Rob Howell’s impressive hammer-beam roofed set which is littered with weapons galore – all calling out to be used. At least in our heads. Phil is toying with taking up the crossbow as a hobby.

But we must keep schtum about the nefarious doings in Ira Levin‘s (he of Rosemary’s Baby and Stepford Wives) Deathtrap. The programme pleads: “Please keep the plot a secret and don’t spoil the fun for future audiences”. And only a cad would do otherwise.

What we can say is that Deathtrap is a thriller in two acts, one set, five characters and laughs in all the right places.  Sydney Bruhl (National Theatre Treasure Simon Russell Beale) is a once-successful writer of stage thrillers who has had a string of flops. He receives, in the post, the manuscript of a play called Deathtrap (“a thriller in two acts, one set, five characters and laughs in all the right places”) by a student he once taught in a writing class, Clifford Anderson (Jonathan Groff, Jessie St James in TV’s Glee). The play is a work of genius and has all the makings of a massive commercial hit.

Bruhl invites Clifford to come down and visit him and his wife Myra (Claire Skinner – suitably nervy in a suitably 1978 brown trouser suit) in their country home. Oh, and to bring the only other copy of  Deathtrap with him…

Deathtrap was Broadway’s longest running thriller and sets up its enjoyably convoluted plot ingeniously but much of the fun comes from its almost relentlessly cheeky self-referential stance. There are plenty of gags about producers, agents, lawyers and critics and discussions about the plotting of thrillers including the one we’re watching itself. The set, like The Producers, is strewn with “window-cards not posters!” of Bruhl’s plays (“Shadow at the Window”, “In For the Kill”, “Web of Danger” etc).

And it’s almost a play within a play: Bruhl discusses Clifford’s work, “This could be a good thriller…” and we know he’s discussing Levin’s Deathtrap as much as Clifford’s “Deathtrap” teasingly subverting the genre. Thankfully as well as its cold third eye Deathtrap has at least one tongue firmly in its cheek and its heart on its sleeve.

All this could be dangerous ground if the end product didn’t live up to being the “comedy thriller” it’s billed as. But fortunately it does. And somehow it stops short of disappearing up its own arsenal of dramatic devices, perhaps because it is actually clever in its own right. It’s also a highly entertaining (and occasionally seat-jumpingly shocking) piece of hokum, a huge slice of enjoyable camp, but still leaving room for the canvas flaps to be left wide open for the arrival of celebrated psychic Helga ten Dorp (Estelle Parsons, Roseanne‘s mother Beverly) who senses very bad vibes. We did too in her enjoyably absurd over-the-top European accent, pronouncing Deathtrap as “Desstrap”. And if the guy ropes need a little tightening in the early scenes this was only the second preview.

No tightening is needed for Groff’s West End stage debut. In Groff’s profile Phil sees the young Christopher Reeve (who played his part in the 1982 movie version) and he  is not only charming but convincingly assured as the young writer with steely ambition behind his twinkly, puppy-eyed  smiles.

The Second Act is less satisfactory and Levin knew it. “Let me do something about Act 2” says SRB’s enjoyably bewildered Bruhl with the air of a man who has been written into a corner. But the laughs keep coming and even if you’ve seen it before (Phil had seen the film and the play with no less a person than Gordon Jackson – Mr Hudson in Upstairs, Downstairs – in the lead) there’s still plenty to enjoy and it works much better than the stagy film, apart from the denouement of the final twist which it is understandably able to tie up much more neatly.

[SLIGHT SPOILER] But while desperately trying not to give anything away, despite the programmes entreaties, the Whingers agreed that the production’s starry casting does slightly undermine one of the show’s surprises. But we shall say no more. [END OF SLIGHT SPOILER]

Director Matthew Warchus (rhymes with “torches”, we’re told) has given the piece a movie aesthetic with some incidental music which is either a nice touch or the thin end of the wedge depending upon your tastes. On balance, we are probably “for” although the clumsy and voice-over recap at the end of Act 2 should be dropped now: apart from anything else it feels patronising. There’s also some cranking up of the pace to be done in places before it opens. And one among our entourage quite reasonably pointed out that they should really replace the A4 paper with letter-sized paper (Deathtrap is set in the US which never embraced the mathematical beauty of international paper sizes which are all based on a single aspect ratio of the square root of 2).

The overwhelming feelings in the party of 19 seemed to be one of delight at seeing a decent thriller back in the West End and done with such generosity of cash, talent and spirit. But at the same time you can see why the genre slipped out of favour. For all its cleverness and post-modernism it still creaks in places. During the interval some of the more experienced (i.e. older) theatregoers in the group were speculating about triple bluffs and twists against which the real Act 2 paled rather in comparison.

But these are merely niggles and the Whingers greet Deathtrap with a hearty “welcome back” to the sadly neglected, well-constructed comedy thriller. And yet again, we find ourselves forced to say to the Eldridges, the Stephenses, the Walshes, the Bartletts, the Butterworths and the Ravenhills: “C’mon. When are you going to get round to writing that thriller? Pull your socks up and get your fingers out”. Phil has bought a crossbow.


The canny producers have come up with an expensive series of enticing film-style trailers for Deathrap which are provoking much discussion on both sides of the Atlantic. We think this will start a trend.

Oh, and Jonathan Groff turned out to be absolutely lovely. And a bit satirical.

And finally thanks to all the lovely people who came including these bloggers and tweeters: Dark Aeon, Webcowgirl, TTT Critic, Paul in London, JohnnyFox, @KatBrown82, @batboysings, @shadowdaddy, @tobiased, @thisstage, @feignedmischief.


Rating score 4-5 full-bodied


14 Responses to “Review – Deathtrap, Noël Coward Theatre”

  1. Miriam Says:

    Sorry I did not join the excursion this time, gents, but do continue inviting me – I ended up going last night on a freebie! Brilliant fun, and Groff is really very good. Agree that the second act is a bit creaky, and ending definitely needs a screw turned, but otherwise really enjoyed it!

  2. Looking forward to seeing this again – I saw it with Denis Quilley as Sydney in the West End, and also in Bournemouth with Gareth Hunt in the role. Pleased to see it merits four glasses worth of appreciation!

  3. webcowgirl Says:

    This was SUCH a fun night out. I didn’t jump out of my chair like some people I might name but I was most certainly caught up in the action. And don’t worry about the semi-spoiler – I think you kept the mystery intact.

    By the way, did you notice poor Terry Beaver appeared to cut his thumb at the end of the show? I wonder if the set splintered on him or maybe he got the wrong end of one of the stage weapons.

  4. […] is for a performance that took place on Monday, August 23rd, 2010. For another point of view, see the West End Whingers, whom I don’t think engage in spoilery activity despite warning of same. Deathtrap runs […]

  5. Paul Thurtle Says:

    This is a fantastic play with a superb cast. There is not a word of dialogue wasted – fast moving and totally engaging. It is funny, scary and gripping. Can’t wait to go to see it again!
    We waited about 25 minutes after the show had finished (10.25pm on Tues 24th Aug) and then the cast came out. Most smiled and shot off (as they assumed we were all waiting for Jonathan Groff to come out). We waited our turn to speak to him; Jonathan was such a gentleman at the stage door. Meeting him was a real ‘knees turned to jelly moment’. He is brilliant in the play.

  6. […] I went to see this play as part of an outing with the ever fabulous West End Whingers (look out for their superb review) and associated chums, all of whom it was lovely to meet – thanks for inviting me! From […]

  7. lavretsky Says:

    Never mind all this nonsense about keeping the plot a secret.If anybody really wants to know they could simply visit Internet Movie Database.

  8. Kat Says:

    Oh God, I admit it, I jumped like a prima ballerina spider. Bloody brilliant evening: Deathtrap and Piranha 3D in one week, aren’t I the lucky one?!

  9. Rev Stan Says:

    It was a great night out at the theatre (both times) good job I didn’t wait for my Whingers’ invite ;0)
    Even after just three performances it had noticeably tightened up.
    Sat next to one of the production staff for second show who told me they use Nutella. Hopefully those who’ve seen it will know what for.

  10. Kat Says:

    Oh good knowledge!

  11. Mark Shenton Says:

    Further to Rev Stan’s revelation about the use of Nutella: even more reason to want to lick Jonathan Groff all over!

  12. Martin Says:

    Well – I found it fun but a bit lame – and Grff barely acceptable. And oh – those videos. The house is described several times in the play as a Colonial, with a small barn attached which has been converted into a studio. Its not an isolated house on a windswept Moor. Its a Colonial, in a wealthy ‘country’ suburb.

  13. […] […]

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