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Simon Russell Beale and Jonathan Groff in Deathtrap

Theatre Killing joke Lloyd Evans

Deathtrap Noel Coward Theatre

Ira Levin’s name isn’t nearly as well known as his titles. Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, both originally novels, are his most celebrated works. He also wrote quite a few Broadway hits. In his 1970s play Deathtrap he tries to imagine how an author of murder mysteries might fare as a real-life killer.This idea is entirely preposterous or, if one were being ungenerous, entirely insane, but never mind. It might be fun.

We open with Sidney Bruhl, a famous playwright whose best work is behind him, discovering a great new play by an unknown dramatist. It’s a surefire hit. He feels it in his bones. ‘Even a gifted director couldn’t ruin it.’ He decides to kill the writer and claim the play as his own. With the help of his reluctant wife, he invites the young man to their home on the pretext of offering him writing tips. After tricking him into wearing a pair of handcuffs, he throttles him with a cheesewire and buries him in the garden. All this occurs in the first 20 minutes. Numerous twists and turns follow as Bruhl finds that his deadly scheme has furnished him with the materials for a new play.

The comic-horror genre is a peculiar hybrid, like a revolver that also blows bubbles, and this slick production fulfils both functions extremely well. The comedy is easy to like and Levin’s gift is gratifyingly cerebral.‘Nothing recedes like success,’ says Bruhl, in an absent moment, as he ponders his recent run of flops. He realises he’s just improvised a good line and rushes to write it down. Simon Russell Beale is eminently suited to this sort of cardie-and-slippers role and he captures every note and nuance of Bruhl without appearing to try too hard. He’s ably supported by Estelle Parsons as a dippy Swedish clairvoyant who drops by occasionally to deliver some idiotic prediction or other. The set, designed by Rob Howell, is a magnificent lumpen warren of Gothic buttresses and cobwebby alcoves from which armed characters can leap out unexpectedly.

All the play’s tricks and visual surprises are faultlessly executed by director Matthew Warchus but I have to confess I’m not a devotee of the horror genre. Suffering the discomfort of having one’s self-preservation reflexes activated seems rather an eccentric form of entertainment, like taking a holiday on a volcano. The play’s biggest shock comes early on and because the device is used not just once more but twice, I could tell, by the final act, that another

Authors don’t become killers at the drop of a hat cataclysm was about to be thrust upon us. I just didn’t know when it was coming.And having no desire to be scared out of my skin yet again, I lowered my gaze towards my lap and glanced through the corners of my eyes at my fellow captives as the bolt of terror approached. When it arrived the entire house seemed to surge and fall in an instant on the same spasm of fear. I sat there watching them smugly, feeling rather like the 17th-century pope who used to link 100 monks together with a copper wire and observe as a huge charge of static electricity was passed through them.

That I couldn’t bear to watch the stage must be a token of the play’s quality, yet it also reveals a self-defeating component in the genre. An art form that attains its supreme moment of excellence by forcing spectators to look elsewhere seems, shall we say, to have a bit of a futility problem. Imagine listening to a symphony that was so good you had to bung up your ears, or visiting an exhibition that was so brilliant you had to put a bag over your head and fumble blindly towards the exit. For all the zest and panache of this production the play is ultimately a rather flimsy thing. Subject it to the lightest cross-examination and it dissolves into absurdity. Rich authors don’t turn into crazy killers at the drop of the hat. And Bruhl’s two romantic entanglements have no emotional coherence. They merely serve as booster fuel to keep the play in the air.

Fans of Simon Russell Beale will find him at his affable and adorable best in this role, and yet he’s capable of far greater challenges. It’s a bit like watching Picasso paint your shed.And if you’re one of those hungry souls that likes to ponder a play’s ramifications over a dish of post-show oysters at J. Sheekey’s, you’ll be left with precious little to discuss. Bring a ready-made topic in advance. I suggest something really juicy and stimulating, such as the balance of merit between the AV and AV+ voting systems.

Music Reasons to be cheerful Peter Phillips It was being whispered last week at the first of the two Berlin Philharmonic appearances at the Proms that attendance across the board this year has been 94 per cent. If this is true, and is maintained to the end, it is a staggering achievement. Every year for the past 15 or so, the press office at the BBC has put out ever-increasing claims about the number of people who have bought tickets, in such a way that I have never quite believed them. The increase year on year was somehow too reliable. But this would trump them all by far.

I wonder why it has happened, if it has. In some ways this year’s season has involved less fuss and fanfare than previously — fewer themes lying behind the programming; fewer anniversaries to make one feel guilty about not having noticed or cared (and the main one, Chopin, being unresponsive); the atmosphere generally more relaxed. If this has led to the kind of better-balanced programmes that the public has wanted to hear, then there is a lesson worth learning. I’m not sure this has been the case — surely we all cherry-pick and find music to suit us — but something has made more people turn out, possibly more regularly than ever before. Of course, it

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the spectator | 18 September 2010 | www.spectator.co.uk

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