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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
DEATHTRAP
at the Noël Coward

BRINGING BACK THE STAGE THRILLER?
By JOHN NATHAN

  Simon Russell Beale and Jonathan Groff/ Ph: Hugo Glendinning

As we waited for this eagerly anticipated revival of Ira Levin’s 1970s thriller to begin (a tube strike delayed the start, prompting a jokey slow hand clap from critics) a colleague wondered if the casting of Simon Russell Beale would tempt lovers of highbrow theatre to the guilty pleasures of a show they would normally consider too low brow for their snobbish tastes. After all, if David Tennant’s Hamlet introduced legions of Doctor Who fans to Shakespeare, why shouldn’t it work the other way round?
 
Reports of the death of the stage thriller are exaggerated. A few blocks down the road towards Trafalgar Square, the Duke of York’s Theatre is hosting Ghost Stories. Meanwhile, The Woman in Black, which opened over two decades ago, remains the eeriest chiller in town.
 
But here, even in the hands of Russell Beale and Matthew Warchus – the director who not only revived Boeing Boeing but performed a miracle resurrection on the old fashioned farce – the stage thriller remains a determinedly hackneyed, if on this occasion enjoyable, form. It also remains impossible to review in any detail without revealing the plot. So it will have to suffice to say that this production presses all the right buttons, yet still falls short of the sum of its considerable parts.
 
The pace is perfect, the acting spot on, the mood neither too camp nor too serious. Rob Howell’s terrific design of a converted Connecticut barn is a cat's cradle of thick wooden beams decorated with all manner of medieval weaponry. And centre stage is the writing desk that last yielded a thriller to Russell Beale’s blocked Sydney Bruhl nearly two decades previously.
 
For this is a thriller about thriller writing. It is the kind of knowing, self-aware show whose characters are as tired of cliché as are modern audiences. But now that the self-aware plays and musicals (I mean apart from Pirandello) have been with us for a generation or two, even outing clichés has become a bit of a cliché. The success of this evening therefore depends largely on style. And ultimately, style is never as satisfying as substance.
 
Still, Russell Beale is an actor who can make the clunkiest line soar with the tiniest ironic pause, and predictably he provides much of the production’s class. He is well supported by American Glee actor Jonathan Groff as a young, Bruhl wannabe. And while the handsome Groff segues from clean-cut innocence to something more sinister, Claire Skinner also does well as Bruhl's fragile, better-adjusted wife.
 
It was Hitchcock who highlighted the crucial difference between suspense and surprise, and Warchus establishes the first before hitting us with the second. Russell Beale does more than his bit, expertly setting up each shock with chatty nonchalance. It’s all good fun. But I left with nagging doubts about the so-called comeback of the stage thriller, the proof of which will be when writers like Bruhl get over their block. Until then, the culture snobs will have a point.
 


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