Last week Owen and I ventured into the murderous mind of Simon Russell Beale. I know, I've re-read that sentence and it looks peculiar, but believe me... he's got you in his sights.
Mind you, so does everyone in Ira Levin's DEATHTRAP which is playing at the Noel Coward Theatre (that just looks wrong too) in a flashy production from Matthew Warchus.I had seen the film version many moons ago and didn't think it was all that, however it did keep giving me premonitions of what plot twists were just about to happen on stage a few seconds before they actually happened. The second female lead wasn't the only one with second sight! However I enjoyed it by and large - but not as much I fear as Messrs. Warchus and Levin.
NOW we have a problem... do I reveal what are charmingly called *spoilers* - especially seeing as how the play itself is 32 years old, has been filmed (although it's not currently available on dvd) and Wikipedia gives the game away anyhoo? I'll see how I feel as I type...
Sidney Bruhl (Beale), a successful writer of stage thrillers, has not had a hit play for some time and the bills are piling up in the converted barn he lives in with his wife Myra (Claire Skinner). Surrounded by weapons - both real and stage props from his past shows - you would think he would think of something but nope, nothing.
He receives a package from a student who attended one of Sidney's college lectures and to the writer's amazement he finds he is reading a script that he would, indeed, kill for. A perfect stage thriller... and only he, Myra and the student Clifford Anderson (Jonathan Groff) know of it's existence.
Sidney invites the young man to visit them that night - the house is of course off the beaten track - ensuring that the young man brings along the original manuscript. The personable and awed student arrives and much to Sidney's delight - and Myra's growing unease - reveals he has not only brought along the original but also all his notes - the only evidence of the play is in the room.
Does Sidney kill him? Does Myra kill him? Do Sidney and Myra kill him? Do they play Uno? Oh bugger - I can't bring myself to tell you.
Needless to say they were plenty of jumps and screams and nervous laughter - and not just for the occupants of the Long Island barn. However, as I said before, I have either seen too many of these damn things or I had sudden memory flashes of the film version but I had a mind that something was about to happen a couple of seconds before it did. That can be a bugger.
Needless to say Simon Russell Beale gave a wonderfully sly performance - his delivery of Levin's tart, waspish dialogue was delivered with killer timing. It's a mark of his quality that he can bounce from THE CHERRY ORCHARD and THE WINTER'S TALE last year to LONDON ASSURANCE to DEATHTRAP this year (via Sondheim's 80th Birthday prom). Far from a standard star performance, Beale gave Sidney a real heart - albeit a black one.
Jonathan Groff was a pleasant surprise as I had not been expecting that much but he played nicely against his boyish All-American looks and certainly gave his GLEE-loving fans - we were surrounded by them! - something to cheer.
Clare Skinner was her usual adequate self, she's just not an actress I find very interesting.
The main excitement was to see Estelle Parsons on stage! She is a tricky actress to cast, her seemingly innate eccentricity (illustrated best in her Oscar-winning role as Gene Hackman's hysterical wife in BONNIE AND CLYDE and ROSEANNE's maddening mother) are always liable to pull focus but here that was allowed to be given full reign as the Dutch psychic who is renting the house next door to the Bruhl's. The role doesn't outstay it's welcome so it was a delight to see her - and God love her she's 82!
The only other role is played by the violently tall Terry Beaver as the Bruhl's family lawyer. While giving a nice supporting turn, his scenes were added an unreckoned-for bizarre quality in that his extreme loftiness - and on the already wonky perspective of Rob Howell's set - made everyone he was playing with look like figures in a Dali landscape, it played havoc with your sense of perspective.
Matthew Warchus' direction was slick and flashy with a nice balance between the witty wordplay and the feeling of imminent suspense but the play's coda, which in itself comes as a surprise after a suspected sturm und drang ending, cut to blackout so abruptly that if it hadn't been for the clapping of the ushers the cast would have lined up for their bow to stony silence. SOMETHING - a music cue, a flash of the over-used lighting effect, some damn BUTTON!
My only problem with the play is that for all it's tricksy playing with the audience, it's awfully self-satisfied knowingness eventually becomes like Levin digging you in the ribs going "Geddit? Geddit?" Ira, we got it the first time you referenced the very play we are watching in the opening ten minutes already.
However if you want a fun night out with some stylish performances you could do a lot worse than see DEATHTRAP.