Deathtrap, Review | The Playhouse Theatre, Northampton

Ira Levin’s comedy-thriller is the latest production from the in-house team at The Playhouse Theatre, Clare Street.

Thriller writer Sidney Bruhl (Michael Street) is in the midst of a dry spell – looking down the barrel of financial difficulties, it becomes almost too tempting to use his knowledge of plotting murders (albeit in fiction) to bump off the young writer Clifford Anderson (Sion Grace) whose surefire smash hit has just landed on his desk, and claim the work, “Deathtrap”, as his own.

Street as Bruhl makes a convincing psychopathic murder writer as he flits between lightheartedly joking about his plot, and calmly carrying it out. His relationship with wife Myra (Mary O’Brien) is playful and – O’Brien’s Myra descends quickly into nervousness as she realises that his cavalier attitude to the subject of murder might not just be in jest. Grace is superb as Clifford – besides having the strongest of the accents on offer, he was also the most varied character and most enjoyable to watch. Both he, and Street, manage to keep enough of their characters hidden to keep the audience on their toes throughout. Fiona Lee has fantastic stage presence as Helga ten Dorp; she has the pleasure of most of the laughs thanks to her quirkiness and delightful accent, and her portrayal of the psychic successfully avoided most of the usual cliches. Completing the cast in a small, but pivotal, role is Graham Lee as Bruhl’s attorney Porter Milgram – another of the more successful accents, but not a part that gave Lee much to do.

In true “comedy-thriller” style, Deathtrap is twist upon twist of slightly convoluted plot, all of which takes place in one room. Act 1 begins at a leisurely pace, before genuinely becoming intensely intriguing – sadly, though, Act 2 doesn’t manage to grasp the audience in the same way, and I found myself wondering how the play was going to find any sort of conclusion, let alone a satisfying one. The “play within a play” element pokes fun at its own genre, such as the paper thin characters of your run of the mill thriller, but here it just seemed to emphasise its own shortfalls rather than alleviate or excuse them.

Not quite enough comedy or thrills to deserve either moniker in this iteration, and I’m struggling to see the appeal that lead to the show running for nearly 1800 performances on Broadway in the late 70s and early 80s. On the whole, the performances were good, but there’s an intensity missing somewhere along the lines – perhaps the real culprit here is the limited space on The Playhouse stage preventing the actors from really getting their teeth into the more physical elements.

The Playhouse has produced a mixed bag here; the performances were enjoyable despite wandering accents but dodgy props and hit-and-miss lighting mean Deathtrap is lacking that edge-of-your-seat feeling that all thrillers need to thrive.

Performance: Wed 20 February 2019, The Playhouse Theatre, Northampton

Deathtrap runs at The Playhouse Theatre, Northampton until Saturday 23 Feb 2019. For more details, visit their website.