First published in The Times, Saturday February 24 2018
According to the principle of Chekhov’s gun, if we see a firearm on stage in Act One, it must be used by the play’s end. Ira Levin’s thriller Deathtrap certainly sticks faithfully to the Russian’s view that everything we see on stage must have some relevance to the action. As the props on display include several pistols as well as daggers, swords, a mace and a crossbow, the audience spends much of the play bracing itself for the inevitable bloodbath.
Levin’s work, which debuted in 1979, belongs to a tradition of popular stage thrillers that includes John Willard’s The Cat and the Canary and Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. Like Christie’s whodunit, Deathtrap is notable for its longevity, holding the record as the longest-running comedy-thriller on Broadway. Such popularity is easy to grasp: there is no better sound in the theatre than the collective gasp at a shocking twist or character volte-face.
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Indeed, the plot of Deathtrap features so many twists and turns that it is almost impossible to give a précis without giving away some of its secrets. The protagonist is Sidney Bruhl (played in Dundee Rep’s revival by Lewis Howden), a one-time successful writer of stage thrillers, now fallen on less fruitful times. As the play opens, Sidney has been enviously reading the script for a new play, sent to him by an admirer, Clifford Anderson (Tom England).
Sidney impulsively invites young Clifford down to his house, apparently to offer advice on improving the manuscript, though his wife, Myra (Emily Winter) is uneasy. “Would you actually kill someone to have a successful play?’ she asks. “Don’t be foolish, darling,” replies Sidney. “Of course I would.”
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Levin’s postmodern play-within-a-play premise allows the writer much scope to have fun with the genre, toying with the audience’s expectations and delivering shocks of the most enjoyable variety. There are nods in the script to everything from Frederick Knott’s Dial M for Murder to the “murderous gays” of Patrick Hamilton’s Rope. Johnny McKnight, the director, meanwhile, throws everything in the playbook at this production, including faces at windows, flickering lights and flashes of lightning, while Ross Brown’s insistent score recalls John Carpenter’s spine-tingling music for his horror films.
As one would expect of the author of the phenomenally successful thrillers Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, the plot is king here, with every other element entirely at its service, including character plausibility. Watching McKnight’s lovingly crafted production is as enjoyable as a ride on a ghost train and ultimately just as disposable. Having learned the many twists contained in Deathtrap, few are likely to feel the need for repeat viewings.