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.