Review: Deathtrap, Yvonne Arnaud ‘Full of Thrills, Jumps and Laughs’

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There are two things you want from a comedy-thriller – a lot of laughs and a lot of surprises – and this excellent production of Ira Levin’s Deathtrap delivers both in abundance.

Remarkably, this is my first encounter with this famous play which still holds the Broadway record for the longest running thriller in its history. It was also nominated for a Tony for Best Play when it first premiered in 1978 and you can understand why it has been so successful for this is a deftly and tightly plotted show centred around a playwright past his prime whose jealousy and ever-burning ambition is reignited when the best manuscript he has ever read lands on his desk.

Sidney Bruhl, (Paul Bradley) is the playwright whose best days are behind him. Now, rather than writing award winners, he spends his time nurturing his writer’s block in his study surrounded by mementos from his glory days. Truthfully, he’s more likely to earn money from giving seminars to the next generation of writers rather than succeeding with his own work.

And that’s a problem for him and his wife, Myra (Jessie Wallace), as she was once a wealthy woman but they’ve pretty much burnt through what money she has in the years they’ve spent propping up his failing career. So, when the most dynamic, exciting manuscript for a thriller appears on Sidney’s desk, it could be the answer to their prayers. The only problem is, the play was written by someone else – one of Sidney’s students, Clifford (Sam Phillips). And if they want to wheedle it out of his hands, well, they’re going to have to kill him for it.

And so we launch off into a fast, pacey almost absurdist thriller as the lure of this golden fleece – this perfect manuscript – clouds the judgment of all who come across it, and who will do anything to take it for themselves.

The direction from Adam Penford is spot on – the drive of the show never lets up and there were enough shocks and surprises to have most of the audience jumping in their seats at all the right moments. Add to this the excellent video work from Duncan McLean that segues in scenes from classic thriller movies during the set changes, and you have a terrific production that will no doubt thrill audiences throughout its UK tour.

The marketing, understandably, centres around both Paul Bradley and Jessie Wallace, both familiar to us from their time spent in EastEnders. Perhaps the latter is under-used in the role of Myra, whose anxiety about her husband’s motivations can make her seem a rather one-dimensional character.

For sure, this is very much a play about Sidney and Paul is excellent as the conniving man who always thinks he’s one step ahead of everyone else, even when he isn’t. And there is a lovely turn from Beverley Klein as the eccentric neighbour with an exceptional gift for ESP, which keeps her always popping her nose in at inopportune times, always suspicious that there is something very puzzling going on at the Bruhl residence. And, indeed, there is. But the goings on are great fun to. And there are so many twists and turns in this terrific play that I defy you to work out who will be left standing at the end!

Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford, to October 7, 2017

Then UK tour dates: 10 – 14 October Cardiff; 17 – 21 October Cheltenham Everyman Theatre; 30 October – 4 November Colchester Mercury Theatre; 7 – 11 November Birmingham New Alexandra Theatre; 14 – 18 November Richmond Theatre.

All production images by James Beedham.

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