Noël Coward Theatre, London WC2
Opened 7 September
, 2010

The Mousetrap has never been made into a movie; consequently, even after half a century, it still makes sense to ask the audience not to reveal that the murderer is... ah, ha, ha. Ira Levin’s Deathtrap, however, was filmed four years after its 1978 première, so the corresponding request on this revival looks like mere posturing. Likewise the announcement that the producers have engaged extra St John’s Ambulance staff in case the shocks of the thriller prove too great for members of the audience. (Delaying the press-night start for 20 minutes for arrival of said staff was, however, just plain infuriating.)
If these touches suggest more of a pastiche than the real thing, so does Matthew Warchus’s staging. Perhaps that’s what makes it a “comedy thriller”. Simon Russell Beale enjoys himself as yesterday’s-man playwright Sidney Bruhl, with his patented delivery of Eeyoring out punchlines in such a low key that they just drop over the net. (That’s the kind of immensely mixed metaphor that would benefit from a deadpan SRB delivery.) As the tyro who looks set to eclipse Sidney, Jonathan Groff of TV’s Glee makes an assured West End début. Each man finds the requisite handful of moments of plausible seriousness in his role to ground the hokey remainder. And you can’t get much hokier than the venerable Estelle Parsons’ accent as Dutch psychic Helga ten Dorp, who keeps popping over from her neighbouring cottage to warn Sidney and his wife Myra (Claire Skinner) of impending misfortune.
Warchus’s direction is good on the shock moments (suddener and more genuine than, say, those on Ghost Stories playing just down the street) and on Sidney and young Clifford’s discussions about the structure of a play called Deathtrap which is in effect the drama we are watching: these remain clever rather than straying into “clever-clever”, either too earnest or too smug. But Warchus (whose career path seems to be working its way through the entirety of drama, genre by genre) goes too far with incidental music, however discreet Gary Yershon’s score may be, and loses all proportion with a final-scene exchange involving not just music but reverberation on the live dialogue and flashback replays of earlier lines. Still, the production pretends to be no more than it is, which is indubitably entertaining. Seldom if ever has the phrase “superior hokum” been so merited.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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