So. Deathtrap, like Mousetrap, is a play where you need to hide the ending from any readers/potential audience member (assuming they haven’t seen the film) in order to ensure they have a good time – if there is a good time to be had.
What a tricky position to be in, to figure out how to criticize a play in which most of what you say has to circle around giving away any of the key plot points! Is there really any point in reviewing a show under this kind of constraint? How honest can I be? Does it take away the whole point of writing the review?
As it turns out, in this case I had a very good evening, so I’m willing to play along with Ira Levin’s little game and keep the secret(s). What does that let me say, though? First, make sure you get a seat at row G or further back – in fact, you may just want to go for one of the balcony seats altogether. Second … hmm … if I say Deathtrap is a murder/mystery/thriller, does that tell you enough? I mean, there’s going to be a murder, you know that, right? I mean, with a title like “Deathtrap,” that’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?
So: five characters in a late 70s setting. Simon Russell Beale (playing, er, a writer, but mostly he seemed to be Simon Russell Beale, not Sydney); his plucky, kooky, wife Myra (Claire Skinner, about 15 years too young for the role but somehow managing to look well over 45 anyway); a hunky young dude who seemed utterly insincere all the way through the play but made up for it by, um, being hunky (Jonathan Groff as Clifford, a younger writer); Helga the wacky Swedish psychic (the venerable Estelle Parsons, total scene stealer, she was); and straight man and Sydney’s lawyer, Porter (Terry Beaver).
For many people, the cast list alone would be enough, but I’m a burnout and I still demand a good show no matter what name player is on stage. And by golly Deathtrap delivers the goods. It is scary, it is funny, and it is so self aware of the fact it’s a play that it makes it even easier to suspend your disbelief and really get behind the totally outrageous action (and plot). I really did not expect almost anything that happened in the show, as it was so cleverly written that it outsmarted the audience by predicting its own reveals (as much of the play is about writing a play) and then going down a completely different path. Still, it’s not so frightening that I couldn’t handle it (I’m a bit of a pansy); the artifice of it all puts enough separation between you as audience and the action on stage that you don’t have to be grossed out, you can just have a good laugh. Except for … well, Simon Russell Beale making out with someone from 10 feet away, he’s really just a bit old for that kind of passionate display, but this will probably be some people’s favorite part of the show.
Anyway, this is an utterly professional, well polished production of the sort I think London does very well, and I expect audiences will be packing the house of the Noel Coward for the length of the run. Though it’s a show made to appeal to audiences rather than push them into new places, how can I fault it for doing what it says on the tin? You will have a good time, and you can thank me for keeping the secrets under my sombrero. I may be a critic (of sorts) but I do want YOU to have a good time, too.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, August 23rd, 2010. For another point of view, see the West End Whingers, whom I don’t think engage in spoilery activity despite warning of same. Deathtrap runs through January 22nd, 2011. I’d say it would be a real palate cleanser during panto season; you may want to wait until then to see it if you don’t manage to sneak in a cheap visit during previews, which end September 16th. And for God’s sake if you’ve come a-visiting, please go see this and not that stale old Mousetrap; so much better to run out of the theater laughing and with your heart pounding because you’ve just had so much fun and not because of an angry sense of just having wasted your evening.)