Deathtrap – A play on a play within a play. (Theatre Review)
Darlinghurst Theatre Company
At the Eternity Playhouse, 15Apri to 10 May, You can grab your tickets here.
Images Helen White
Deathtrap is a play within a play within a play on most of the things that we deem important in the play – at the superficial level at least. It throbs with clever association and parody, using the classic tropes of the comedy thriller, most notably, the murder and the dead body, to draw attention to the recognition that the comedy thriller is a played out genre, as there is simply no twist the audience hasn’t seen before. However, and this 2015 version of Deathtrap is a great example of this, the audience still want to be surprised and they want to be thrilled, and so they will attend this kind of theatre even when the genre has lost its ability to send a fresh thrill. This is exemplified in Sindey Bruhl’s early conversations with his wife Myra Bruhl, and by the fact that this is an aging writer whose fame came from ‘The Murder Game’ written decades earlier, and the deathly cloud of writers block that hovers over the top of Bruhl, who sits at a desk with a wall of murder implements used in his past plays hovering dangerously at his back.
The unthinkable happens – at least the unthinkable to writer Ira Levin – and a young playwright who’d attended a class of Bruhl’s sends him a completed manuscript, one of only two copies, called Deathtrap which Bruhl immediately recognises as a brilliant play that transforms the genre. Bruhl fantasises himself having written the play, speaks this aloud to his wife, and makes a plan to invite the young Clifford Anderson into his house, as long as he brings the only other copy of the play. Reviewers have been admonished by Levins estate to stop there for fear of spoilers, but the play continues in its plot twists and turns, comically referring to itself and the other great plays of the genre as well as the tropes of the thriller comedy. Written in 1978, it had a lot to say about the societal penchant for flocking to the comedy thriller and these references tend to appear quaint to an audience that isn’t as familiar with the source material Levin is toying with. But it is safe to say the play is considered masterful in its construction, astute in its observations and one of the great plays that firmly belong to that “entertainment at all costs” category of theatre making that naturally saw itself competing with film and television.
The first thing to say about this 2015 version of Deathtrap is the set is so good, it wouldn’t surprise me if Michael Hankin (assisted by costume designer Katren Wood) gets a few interior design project offers out of it. With the advantages the internet offers, strolling around images of previous sets confirmes Hankin’s set is one of the best there has ever been. The famous implements of murder are seamlessly integrated into the decorating of the Bruhl’s livingroom, something that added a punch as each was removed for various reasons throughout the play. The set also gives the play the additional spice it needs to bring focus to the plays retro vibe rather than its more antiquated nuances. One of the challenges of staging Deathtrap in 2015 is the loss of its primary claim – that thriller theatre is played out. It isn’t any more, and this problem dates the production. However Jo Turners punchy, contemporary direction and the aforementioned set make Deathtrap cool where it might have been considered old hat.
If the set has a handsome retro vibe, so does Andrew McFarlane as Sindey Bruhl, adding chic to the sometimes tired and trite dialogue that in the hands of the wrong person, could fall horribly flat. McFarlane is a streamlined, handsome Bruhl, confident instead of dithering, sly and witty instead of foolish and out of control, and the slight shift in emphasis (I’m comparing him to Michael Caine in the film version) compliments Turners retro aesthetic. The play opens with a wonderful back and forth between Sidney and his wife Myra, here played by Sophie Gregg and the pair create a commanding opening sequence that engages the audience immediately, prepping them for the constant too and fro, twist and turn of the rest of the play. When Georgina Symes enters as the psychic Helga Ten Dorp the wit gets sharper and the meta aspects of the play strengthen into a delicious series of little mind games, that if you know your thriller theatre makes for a great game of spot the reference.
One of the more interesting aspects of Deathtrap comes in the form of the young playwright Clifford Anderson, here played by Timothy Dashwood, about whom its difficult to write without giving away spoilers. Sexuality becomes an interesting question in Deathtrap, one that exists both inside and outside of the play itself. Dashwood’s contribution is well performed including subtle ambiguities that make the character fascinating in his hands, particularly when one considers the time span the play straddles between writing and this performance. I found it the most interesting aspect of this version of Deathtrap, which can feel very old-fashioned unless it is played in some way as a parody of itself. Finally, Drew Fairley is a comical and fun Porter Milgrim, one of the cast members who will offer up the biggest changes.
Deathtrap is one of those plays that all theatre lovers should see at some point. Its been around for such a long time, and has been seen and loved by so many people, it becomes an essential notch on any theatre lovers bed post. Jo Turner has brought it sufficiently and interestingly to life here, so that it becomes a truly excellent production of the play that holds the record for the longest running comedy-thriller on Broadway. That’s an even more interesting tidbit when you realise one of the plays it parodies, The Mousetrap, is the longest running show in theatre history. We Westerners really love our theatre thrillers.