What would you kill for? Money? Fame? Love? Ira Levin’s tightly-wound thriller Deathtrap explores the makings of a murder, at New Alexandra Theatre until Saturday 11th November.
The curtain rises on Sidney Bruhl, a washed up playwright known for his crime thrillers, whose study is littered with old playbills, props, and posters; relics of his former success. Characters constantly make reference to the work he produced in his glory days, and as the first act progresses, the stunt weapons hanging on the walls take on a more sinister meaning…
Best known for playing bolshy Kat Slater in EastEnders, Jessie Wallace retains just a little of that steel in the role of Myra, Sidney’s wife of 11 years. There is talk of Sidney marrying Myra for her family’s wealth, which immediately piques the audience’s suspicion, but then Myra seems keen for Sidney’s next play to be a financial success… is she merely being a supportive spouse, or does she have secret motives of her own?
This is the trick which both central performers pull off admirably; presenting themselves sympathetically to the audience, while at the same time making it entirely plausible that they are hiding nefarious intentions. Paul Bradley is in turn pompous, avuncular, and downright creepy as faded playwright Sidney, while Sam Phillips brings a boyish, lamb-to-the-slaughter energy to the part of Bruhl’s former student, Clifford Anderson, who calls on Bruhl for help with his own script.
The cast is small; in addition to the three core characters, there are just two supporting roles: Julien Ball as Sidney’s lawyer, the ever-so-slightly uptight Porter Milgrim; and Beverley Klein on top comedic form as the Bruhls’ neighbour, Scandinavian celebrity clairvoyant Helga ten Derp, who functions as a delirious Greek chorus, with her over-the-top premonitions echoing the on-going murderous machinations of the Bruhl household.
It’s best to go into Deathtrap knowing little or nothing of the plot, so as to get the most excitement and enjoyment out of its numerous twists and turns. Written by Ira Levin, the brilliant satirical author who sent shivers down our spines with his novels Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, it should come as no surprise that Deathtrap includes some biting commentary on the relationships and social norms of the 1970s, which in 2017 help make the play feel like even more of a period piece, akin to the Agatha Christie-like thrillers whose influences are visible in the characterisation and staging.
The production is deceptively simple; while all of the action is kept to a single set (the ground floor of the Bruhls’ home in rural Connecticut), scenes are interspersed and punctuated with clips from iconic thrillers such as Gaslight and Dial M for Murder, projected onto a lowered screen, which pepper the show with oblique clues as to what kinds of chilling events viewers can expect to unfold.
Ultimately, Deathtrap is a thriller about thrillers, with a playful and devilishly clever script which simultaneously confirms and subverts what viewers have come to expect from the genre. Bolstered by excellent production values and a strong cast (occasionally iffy American accents aside), this is a must-see for crime fans.