The Theatreguide.London Review
Noel Coward Theatre Winter 2010 - 2011
Once upon a time all stage mysteries were variants on the Agatha Christie country house whodunnit, with a disparate group of people together someplace until they started dying off and the detective announced that the murderer was Someone In This Room.
And then in 1970 came Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth, a convoluted, twisting-back-on-itself tale in which the question wasn't so much whodunnit but who's doing what to whom and can we believe what we just saw with our own eyes.
Ira Levin's 1978 Deathtrap was one of the first successful follow-ups to the Sleuth model, and it has a sufficient number of twists, turns and reversals to keep you guessing not only what's going to happen next but how much of what has already happened was true.
We begin with a formerly successful writer of thrillers who hasn't had a hit in years ('Nothing recedes like success,' he says ruefully, the writer in him immediately adding 'That's good. I can use that.').
A beginning writer has sent him a play that is a sure-fire success, and when he discovers that the lad hasn't told anyone about it and there are no other copies, he succumbs to the temptation to kill the kid and pass the play off as his own.
Now, without offering too much of a spoiler, I'll just say that some of what I've just told you is not true, and that some of what replaces it as the truth is also not true, and some of that. . . .
You get the idea. Every time we settle into an understanding of what's going on, a surprise twist shows us we were wrong or takes the plot in an unexpected new direction.
And it is fun to be tricked and to try to keep up with the clever playwright, especially since Levin spices his plot with in-jokes and catty one liners - the new play is so good, the veteran author tells us, that even a brilliant director couldn't ruin it.
It's not high art, of course, but expertly crafted high entertainment.
Simon Russell Beale, arguably the finest classical actor of his generation, brings more acting skill to the central role than it probably needs or deserves, and thus gives us the added pleasure of watching a master floating through a play with consummate ease - the effect is something like the added frisson Laurence Olivier brought to the film version of Sleuth.
Jonathan Groff is adequate as the younger writer, Claire Skinner a little less so as the older man's rich wife, and Estelle Parsons adds to the comic tone by going exactly as far over the top as a local clairvoyant as the role absolutely demands.
Receive alerts every time we post a new review