Deathtrap, Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury ★★★½

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Ira Levin’s 1978 comedy-thriller Deathtrap, which became one of Broadway’s longest running plays, is a postmodern masterpiece. Revolving around the machinations of a struggling playwright of thrillers, several of the play’s twists and turns involve the writing of a play, also called Deathtrap, which mirrors events on stage.

Levin’s witty script plays up the theatricality of its events, having characters describe a potential onstage recreation of playwright Sidney Bruhl’s study in terms that, of course, apply to the very set the actors are performing on (an impressive work by designer Morgan Large). Such acknowledging winks to the audience are part of the play’s rich vein of humour, which makes the acts of violence and, yes, murder so gloriously palatable.

In this touring production of Salisbury Playhouse’s revival, Paul Bradley makes Bruhl a bumbling, portly, vaguely loveable rogue, at least initially; a barbed version of the EastEnders and Holby City characters he has become known for. When he receives a copy of Deathtrap written by one of his former seminar students, the notion that he could kill its writer and assume the play as his own seems out of character at first.

What makes the role of Sidney more believable is that his wife Myra believes that he could commit murder to rescue his failing career. Jessie Wallace struggles here; only once the plan is attempted does her relationship with her stage husband become believable. Far better is Sam Phillips as the young writer, Clifford Anderson, whose work Bruhl covets. Phillips has a beguiling air of innocence that, once the play’s many twists make themselves known, reveal inner depths.

If the machinations of a playwright to procure a play that is, itself, a description of said machinations were the only plot elements in Deathtrap, it would be a competent thriller with comic elements. Levin’s canny introduction of the extreme Helga ten Dorp, a Swedish psychic who claims to foresee much violence and pain in the Bruhls’ house, ramps the comedy up several notches while doing the same to the tension.

Director Adam Penford allows Beverley Klein to really go for it in her big scenes, such that Helga often feels like she has wandered into the wrong play. But that is just what Deathtrap needs: Helga is an audience surrogate, her predictions about what is to happen a substitute for our own contemplations about where Levin’s script will go next.

The play’s scene changes make use of a large video screen, showing clips from old Hollywood thrillers adapted from stage works, from Gaslight to Dial M For Murder and Sleuth. It’s an audacious device, but one which works in reinforcing the artificiality of the stage thriller while simultaneously keeping the audience on tenterhooks for the “real” events unfolding in front of us.

And while the very final scene, and its crashing-to-black denouement, feels a little rushed and anticlimactic, Deathtrap manages to produce an evening of jumps, laughs and scares that many more conventional stage thrillers struggle to deliver.

Tour continues until November 18.