Wednesday, 15 November 2017
An American comedy thriller famous for its witty play-within-a-play twists and turns fails to impress reviewer Peter Barker.
by Ira Levin
Give Us A Cluedo
Sidney Bruhl is a playwright past his prime. "Nothing," he tells his wife Myra, "recedes like success." In spite of this pithy epigram, he hasn't had a hit in his field of crime thrillers for far too long.
Then Clifford, a talented student from Sidney's summer writing school, pens and obligingly posts him the only copy (Deathtrap was written in 1978) of a whodunnit drama for his tutor's opinion - which Sidney realises immediately is a surefire hit.
Paul Bradley and Jessie Wallace, best known as Nigel Bates and Kat Slater in Eastenders, take the roles of the Connecticut literary couple. Sam Phillips is the creative writing student and the potential victim of Sidney's desperate ploys to regain his spot as a doyen of crime plays.
Unfortunately this production of a previous Broadway and West End success is so clunky, it's hard to discern the postmodern twists and turns which made this play such a surefire hit at its première and later incarnations including a movie starring Michael Caine.
Certainly this touring version of the play, directed by Adam Penfold, makes the sharp comedy thriller seem more like a gentle spoof than a caustic look at the genre and witty jibe at the lengths to which ambitious writers will go for ideas and success.
Penfold underestimates the audience's knowledge with heavy-handed use of videos clips showing Dial M For Murder, Witness For The Prosecution, Gaslight and Sleuth.
The actors suffer likewise. Bradley does devious and sometimes angry as Sidney, while Wallace has too little to do as his wife, but makes as much as she can of the frustrated spouse. However their accents drift and again the direction feels distinctly underpowered. Phillips as the student fares a little better.
Beverley Klein as Swedish clairvoyant Helga ten Dorp either steals the scenes or hams it up, according to your point of view. Either way the precision needed for this comedy drama with its deliberate contrivances never emerges.
There are just about enough laughs, plot twists and surprises to keep an audience entertained for the running time of two and a half hours.
However, altogether this feels like a production where the director seems to have too little confidence in Ira Levin's script to do the business and even resorts to unsubtle sound effects designed to make the audience jump in their seats at key moments.
Designer Morgan Large has some fun with the stock whodunnit setting of a large room in a home complete with French windows and a staircase, dressing it with props such as a suit of armour and various weapons from Bruhl’s hit stage plays.
As a newcomer to Deathtrap, the staging and acting in this play felt ponderous to me.
Whatever good points the play may also have are drowned out by poor directing choices from director Penfold. It's a red/amber light.