FringeReview UK 2017
Ben and Max Ringham’s sound crashes an ominous chiller chord around Theatre Royal Brighton in Ira Levin’s 1978 Deathtrap. Simultaneously Duncan McLean’s helpful video design throws up a mobile scrapbook of old thriller clips Ira Levin pays homage to. With fights devised by Rachel Bown-Williams, the chill you never expect is laughter in Adam Penford’s pacey direction, with Morgan Large’s single naturalistic set, lovingly detailed by James Whiteside’s lighting. Till September 16th, then on tour nationwide.
From the writer of Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys from Brazil, The Stepford Wives: Thwunk. Ben and Max Ringham’s sound crashes an ominous chiller chord around Theatre Royal Brighton. Simultaneously Duncan McLean’s helpful video design throws up a mobile scrapbook of old thriller clips Ira Levin pays homage to here in his 1978 Broadway smash. Be very – entertained.
The chill you never expect is laughter in Adam Penford’s pacey direction. It’s clean-cut, with Morgan Large’s single naturalistic set, a deep eggshell blue Connecticut study lovingly detailed by James Whiteside’s lighting: it gleams over an alarming number of stage-expired and real implements of death hanging about. If there’s a medieval axe suspended you know it’ll go off sometime.
It’s not just that Levin’s characters actually mention plays like Sleuth – the only one thriller dramatist Sidney Bruhl shudders from comparison with. Or the witty dialogue. It’s the enormous relish with which Paul Bradley’s Bruhl, afflicted wife Myra played straight by Jessie Wallace, and the cast attack this tourbillon of faux passes, deaths and entrances.
Beverley Klein’s ESP star Helga ten Dorp gets a round of applause every time she beetles in gesticulating wildly wailing ‘pain’, with dire warnings and even direr exegeses. The rest stay comically rooted during these virtuoso fireworks. They’ll get their play back sometime.
Once the author of a smash himself, The Death Game, the down-at-heel Bruhl’s had a very nasty shock receiving Deathtrap from erstwhile student, Clifford Anderson, played with winning openness by Sam Phillips. It’s good enough to kill for as Myra immediately apprehends, and with no other copy and no relatives Anderson’s duly lured round and invited to try Houdini’s handcuffs. The resulting ‘murder in the first act’ as Deathtrap has it – Bruhl can’t resist quoting, nor can Anderson – isn’t quite what anyone expects. Or do they? Ten Dorp might know. She’s already burst on the scene predicting Anderson’s and later a woman’s way with a large blade. What could she possibly mean? The real killer combos keep permutating. And there’s a surprise kiss.
Act Two has us wondering what’s real, who’s actually pushing up turf and returning through French windows. An improbably named solicitor, Julien Ball’s Porter Milgrim, who once wrote a play makes his conciliatory appearances, and Ten Dorp insists Cassandra-like on reappearing. There’s suspense not just up to the end and you’ll never guess who, but…
Levin’s fiendish cleverness tightropes between real thriller and comedy. Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web for one manages a similar balance though the tone here is darker and funnier. If events threaten to hang fire in Act Two’s second (of three) scenes it picks up fast and you couldn’t predict the end. Whether one can suspend belief, especially over the nature of ESP at certain points is another matter. Levin dips more than toes in the supernatural. ESP as Bruhl rightly points out is utilised by police forces – there’s Peter James’ DI Roy Grace too. Much of ten Dorp’s warnings – however OTT she sounds – fall comfortably, credibly within this territory; including one prediction she can’t quite nail till she has it in her hand. There’s just a wild stretch you can’t quite swallow. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, we know what Levin means by the device and it leads on wonderfully to the denouement.
The production’s a triumph of tone too, from over-egged sound system and wittily distracting video to pacey direction and the fights devised by Rachel Bown-Williams. Bradley’s tour-de-force of jocular unpleasantness going brick-faced every six minutes with various exertions is a constant delight never drawing attention to its performative self. His seedy burned-out has-been has a sudden chance with a new plot presented to him in a highly original manner; what he does with it defies fiction, as it were. Wallace’s dignified horror with desperate remedies, Anderson’s mix of open-eyed smile and sudden lurches to action are neatly traversed as elements of personalities surface. Klein’s turn as ten Dorp steals the show and wraps it in nebulous wails of ‘danger’. Ball feels every inch the hunkered solicitor, even if the old gleam of the playwright who wrote the hapless Frankenfurter surfaces. Expect sizzles.