by Ira Levin
Directed by Adam Penford
Designed by Morgan Large
A Salisbury Playhouse Production
Salisbury Playhouse, Thursday 18th February 2016 14.15
Porter Milgrim, a lawyer – Julien Ball
Helga ten Dorp, a psychic – Beverley Klein
Clifford Anderson, an aspiring playwright – Sam Phillips
Myra Bruhl, Sidney’s wealthy wife – Lesley Vickerage
Sidney Bruhl, a popular playwright – Kim Wall
Ira Levin’s Deathtrap has been described as the American Mousetrap in terms of longevity and popularity, though its initial run 1978 to 1982 is a mere nothing compared to the 1952 – 2016 dates of The Mousetrap (still on its uninterrupted West End run). The names with “trap” may not be coincidental. After the deliciously satirical take on the thriller genre in Poole last week, Secondary Cause of Death, I said it would be hard to watch The Mousetrap with a straight face, but as chance would have it, six days later we were booked to see Deathtrap.
Deathtrap also utilises the double confuser storyline, as it’s a play about stealing a script for a play called Deathtrap. Sidney Bruhl is a successful playwright, who has writer’s block and needs a hit. His wife is wealthy and supports him. She has a weak heart. The play starts, ostensibly, with Sydney receiving the manuscript of a play called Deathtrap, from a student at one of his seminars. He fantasises about killing the young writer and claiming the play as his own. He invites the writer to his home. A Swedish psychic, Helga, has just moved into a nearby cottage and sees dire things about to happen. They do, but there are twists and turns.
It’s billed as a comedy thriller, but it’s restrained comedy and there are also serious dramatic bits.
Act 2: Clifford Anderson (Sam Phillips) and Sydney Bruhl (Kim Wall)
It was a Broadway play, so we expect just the one very elaborate set and a small cast, because that’s how American theatre works. Large cast and elaborate sets for musicals (which are truly the American theatre genre); small but stellar casts and one set for theatre. Ira Levin’s script knowingly mentions this twice. Early on Sidney Bruhl says he needs a ‘One act five character moneymaker’ and at the end Helga repeats that the play has to have one set and five characters. I’d add that ideally it has two “star” parts big enough to go above the title on a Broadway billboard, and ideally an older male and a younger male stars. Levin is poking fun at his own genre throughout. When Sidney and Clifford discuss play writing, they mention ‘stage right’ but then in the non-play context, Sidney talks about Myra ‘moving upstage’ rather than ‘towards the door.’
The play has that other American Broadway theatre characteristic, characters speak for too long and too wordily. The absence of Pinter’s dialogue influence is a negative, as it so often is. Another characteristic is talking about people who then arrive seconds later.
Act One: Clifford tries on Houdini’s handcuffs
The first half (Acts 1, scenes 1-3) is much better than the second half. Sam Phillips as the younger male lead did having a garrotte round his neck superbly, going instantly bright scarlet. How he managed it, I don’t know, but do not try this at home. The play’s reputation rests, I think, on its powerful Act One twist (no plot spoilers – my companion who hadn’t read about it was genuinely shocked). The thriller / violence part is a major plus. After that, Act two is an anti-climax, in spite of a very well directed and executed lengthy stage fight. The last scene, a kind of coda with the ESP psychic Helga, and the lawyer, Peter, was unnecessary, and to me at least, a weak ending.
Act 2: Sydney Bruhl (Kim Wall) and Clifford Anderson (Sam Phillips), both trying to write
A nice production aspect was projecting film thrillers on a dropped screen to cover scene changes: Gaslight, Dial M For Murder, Witness for the Prosecution and Sleuth. It’s always welcome to see classic scenes and most of the films are referenced in the play. However, seated over to one side, there was an awful lot of distracting shadowy movement going on behind the screen, even when characters were supposedly dead.
There are issues. Sam Phillips (as Clifford) and Kim Wall (as Sidney) are pretty good on American accents. That is to say, they are not as seamless as Alan Cumming is in The Good Wife TV series or as Damian Lewis is, but an American won’t squirm listening to them. They’re both notably good in the parts. The other two (Myra and Porter) sound British doing American. Beverley Klein puts all her energy into the portrayal of the Swedish psychic. I’ve taught Swedes. Helga ten Dorp gets a few Muppet “Swedish chef” sounds here and there but her errors in English really, really don’t sound Swedish at all to me. I can’t think of any Swedes that fluent with such basic errors. That’s the fault of Ira Levin’s script, not of her performance. Written as generic foreigner. “Ten Dorp” sounds definitely Dutch to me. So I checked. In the original, Helga is a Dutch psychic. I know even fewer Dutch people with that level of error, but I’d guess they changed her nationality because Beverley Klein could get those “Swedish chef” sounds. I’d also trace the origin of the character to Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit. Other reviews said it was overplayed to the point of farce, and I’d agree. While it was a strong performance, it was stylistically different to the quieter humour of Sydney. But for a “comedy-thriller” the play didn’t get many laughs overall.
The psychic Helga ten Dorp (Beverley Klein)
The original production had a long run on Broadway, and an important 2010 London run with Simon Russell-Beale as Sydney. It’s clear in the text that Sydney and Clifford have a homosexual relationship. However, Ira Levin’s estate stopped a 2012 production because it made their relationship physically explicit by showing Clifford naked very briefly (according to Wikipedia). That I had assumed included the kiss after the murder. But the kiss was in here, and the kiss was in the 1982 film, so now part of the plot.
The lawyer, Porter (Julian Ball) and Sydney Bruhl (Kim Wall)
The set was elaborate, perhaps more elaborate than it needed to be with a cut away ceiling and birch trees above. It was great, but then it never changes. The lead roles were excellent. There are clever twists, but it is just what Levin twice calls it … a one set, five character moneymaker … with a nice play within a play within a play creating a knowingly theatrical aspect. Our judgment at the end was the same: it was pleasant enough, we didn’t much like the intrinsic play. I might add that I never liked Mr Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby either, though I was fond of both the book and film of The Boys From Brazil. Deathtrap is a good afternoon’s entertainment, but no more. I would skip another production if advertised.
As far as we could see on a matinee, it was full. Salisbury Playhouse is a well-run, well-marketed regional theatre that can run an original production for three weeks and sell out a Thursday afternoon. The contrast with Poole is astonishing. Poole Lighthouse can draw on a conurbation (Bournemouth, Poole, Christchurch, Wimborne, Ferndown) of around 450,000. Salisbury is listed at just 10% of that (though its shopping centre is better). Poole had a far funnier comedy-thriller last week, Peter Gordon’s Secondary Cause of Death with a first rate comedy cast. They only ran it for two nights. It was over half full, but not full, and the Saturday with no play at all was dark. Of course it has taken at least a decade of reliable, quality productions to build Salisbury’s loyal customer base. But whatever Salisbury Playhouse is doing right in getting bums on seats, Poole Lighthouse is doing badly wrong. Part of Salisbury’s attraction is wide rows, two aisles, rather than a single row system with narrower rows. You leave Salisbury feeling comfortable. Poole is first rate in facilities compared to the West End, and has better loos, but the leg room is definitely tighter. Salisbury is also a producing theatre with uniformly high production standards … they didn’t write this play.
But to me, this week, Poole had the better play in a better (touring) production, a lot more laughter, and the far, far better “exit vibe and buzz” in the audience. But two days for Poole versus three weeks for Salisbury?
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ADAM PENFORD, Director