Shocked, frightened, surprised, delighted and entertained – one of the most enjoyable nights we’ve had at the theatre this year! Expect the unexpected! (Oscar Wilde)
Deathtrap at the Yvonne Arnaud this week is in the tradition of Sleuth – a thriller with a wicked grin and a surprise up its sleeve every moment. The plot is cleverly self-referential: an aging thriller playwright who needs a sure-fire hit is tempted to kill to achieve it. When a young writer brings to Sidney Bruhl’s home a manuscript that he can see could be just that, the older man covets the manuscript and the revival of his fortunes that it could bring him if he steals it. And the plot thickens and becomes more and more convoluted from there on.
The direction is excellent. The static setting of the Bruhls’ living room caused criticism of the cinema adaptation by Sidney Lumet (1982 starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve). Here on the stage, scene transitions are enlivened by minute-long showings of relevant movie clips from classic crime thrillers, which also serve to keep the audience second-guessing the play’s plot.
Ira Levin also wrote Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives. No wonder that the writer Stephen King is a number-one fan of his works. Levin’s achievement is to create suspense, horror and humour all at once, with clever, intelligent psychological writing, but a minimum of gore or physical violence.
Deathtrap is a masterpiece of audience misdirection. It’s a psychological rollercoaster that keeps its pace and humour right to the last minute. Second-guessed and wrong-footed, we gasped and laughed through the evening and emerged into the real world the richer for having been immersed in this fantasy.
This review also appears in the online magazine Essential Surrey.