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Review Round-up: Did Critics Jump at Deathtrap?

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Ira Levin's 1978 comic thriller Deathtrap has received its first West End revival thanks to director Matthew Warchus, who helms a cast led by Simon Russell Beale and Glee star Jonathan Groff.

Russell Beale plays Sidney, a once-celebrated thriller author who’s now suffering from writer's block. While waiting for inspiration, he receives a brilliant script from one of his former writing students, Clifford (Groff). The temptation is too much. With the help of his wife, Sidney plots to murder his protégé and market the young man's sure-fire thriller as his own. But, as in any good thriller, twists and turns follow in abundance.

Deathtrap opened last night (7 September 2010, previews from 21 August) at the Noel Coward Theatre, where it's currently booking until 22 January 2011.

The cast also features Claire Skinner, Estelle Parsons and Terry Beaver. The production is designed by Rob Howell and produced by David Pugh and Daffyd Rogers.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (two stars) - "As an act of period restoration, this isn’t a patch on Warchus’ make-over of Boeing Boeing... The artfully plotted script – Levin’s and their own – twists and turns through acts of murder, flashes of lightning and the comical intrusions of a flapping attorney (Terry Beaver) and a psychic visitor, Helga ten Dorp, played by a wonderfully nutty Estelle Parsons. In the middle of it, Russell Beale projects a character in search of love and understanding, despite the crusty, poisonously witty exterior, that the play itself cannot sustain... But apart from one big surprise in the first act, the brandishing of weaponry and sudden reversals are not all that chilling."

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) - "The fun lies in watching Simon Russell Beale as Sidney grow from an angsty flop-merchant into a potential Connecticut Macbeth. Although Russell Beale makes no concessions to an American accent, he deploys his innate comic gifts with great skill... It's a pleasure to watch his hair-trigger timing, even if he lacks the manic zest John Wood gave the role on Broadway. For all Russell Beale's style, and the personable presence of Jonathan Groff, of Glee fame, as the aspiring Clifford, Levin's play is a bit too self aware for its own good... What Levin has written is a diverting meta-thriller, implying he is delivering the final obsequies over a once-flourishing but exhausted genre."

  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (three stars) - "For all its merits - and it is a perfectly watchable affair - there is something oddly unsatisfying about this show. It makes, in the end, for an adequate rather than inspired evening. The set certainly hits the spot - a vaulted barn roof, the walls covered in various lethal weapons featured in Sidney's plays. Slender, youthful Claire Skinner is certainly funny as Myra ... yet she hardly looks a candidate for a coronary. Mr Russell Beale, similarly, is miscast... He doesn't for a moment convince as playwright Sidney. He simply plays, well, Simon Russell Beale playing Sidney. Jonathan Groff is excellent as the young man... Theatrical in-jokes abound and some of the witticisms are peachy... By the end, however, it all feels like a murder mystery turned into something more ironic by a playwright who maybe couldn't come up with a more chilling ending."

  • Libby Purves in The Times (four stars) - "The gasps come courtesy of Ira Levin, who has been scaring the bejasus out of us in print since 1953... With this play he comes back, gleefully, to his early love of live theatre: its lusts and rages are the passions of one declining playwright and one ambitious one... It is wittily self-referential, artfully made, masterly in misdirection... If there is a problem with this splendid piece of hokum - and there isn't, not really, but if there was - it is that Russell Beale is too good, too subtle, too profoundly human an actor to fit into a serial killer-thriller, however knowingly self-mocking ... So there are moments in a seriously enjoyable evening, when Bruhl gives us shards of real feeling, real ambiguous self-disgust and humanity, and makes us stop happily wondering who will be clobbered next, and pause to consider the pain of an old man of the theatre when his reputation dwindles to just 'enough for a few dinner invitations and house seats'."

  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “The comedy thriller is not exactly staple West End fare these days but Matthew Warchus’ enjoyable revival of Ira Levin’s 1978 play Deathtrap suggests that the genre still has legs. It’s anchored by a superb performance from Simon Russell Beale... Warchus has done a characteristically nice job of dusting off a somewhat creaky period piece and imbuing it with vitality ... but it’s to Russell Beale that we’re unerringly drawn ... There are disappointments... The most grating feature is a plot recap near the end, which feels wholly unnecessary. Deathtrap may not be a show for those who expect their theatre to be intellectually exacting, but its brand of unapologetically giddy entertainment makes it sure to be a hit.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (three stars) - "Matthew Warchus directs a production that deftly catches both the piece’s humour and its sudden thrills ... Simon Russell Beale is in splendidly baleful, blackly comic mode as the blocked author, though even this fine actor can’t conceal the fact that the contrivances of the plot are pretty clunky, and that the piece is stronger on style and jokes than dramatic substance. Jonathan Groff makes a fresh-faced, apparently likeable adversary, but the other characters are thinly drawn with Claire Skinner wasted in the role of the wife ... It’s an enjoyable evening but the play finally feels too smugly delighted by its own ingenuity to be truly satisfying."
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