Deathtrap – Mill at Sonning

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writer: Ira Levin

Director: Tam Williams

Ira Levin’s comedy murder mystery Deathtrap, which takes place on one set with a cast of five characters, is a wealth of self-reference and metatextual commentary. Its lead character is Sidney Bruhl (Nick Waring), a writer of murder mystery stage plays (always one set, five characters) whose creative well is coming up dry. When a former student, George Watkins’s Clifford Anderson, mails him a completely new play called Deathtrap, Sidney is tempted to bump him off and claim the work for his own.

Like all the best murder mysteries, there are twists at the bottom of every page, meaning that from the off, the story tempts whether Sidney will get away with his crazy idea or whether his more level-headed wife Myra (Emily Raymond) will prevail. The tension between the two forms the core of the first act, and Raymond effectively portrays a woman who is growing to realise that her husband might, in fact, be as capable of murder as the characters he creates.

Matters are complicated when the Bruhls’ new neighbour, Dutch psychic Helga ten Dorp, detects the aura of death hanging around the writer. In the Mill’s production, one of the strongest decisions by director Tam Williams allows Issy van Randwick to play Helga totally straight, rather than the broad caricature with which Levin’s comic creation is normally imbued. As van Randwyck’s interloper surveils the scene, the tension is ratcheted upwards where other productions might instead choose to focus on Helga’s absurdities.

The ensuing twists revolve around whether Sidney will be discovered in his actions and how far he will have to go to pursue his dream. Within that framing, Waring gives a fine portrayal of an antihero; his Bruhl is an egotist for whom personal success trumps everything, but who retains enough warmth to remain a welcome protagonist.

First performed in 1978, Levin’s script does contain a gay subplot that treats homosexuality/bisexuality as little more than one more way to give the story another twist. One would hope that the direction and performance could elicit a little more depth to such relationships than exists on the page, but that is not the case here.

Nevertheless, there is enough arch campness to make the mix of murder mystery and comedy work well. Michael Holt’s set lends an authentic air of a 1970s Connecticut cottage while also including a sly nod to a 21st-century successor in the comedy murder genre in Disney’s TV series Only Murders in the Building.

That small homage marks how Levin’s play has helped shape the comedy-thriller hybrid genre in the near half-century since it was first staged on Broadway. The Mill’s production exemplifies what makes it so great: it is a funny, chilling, twisted thrill ride that entertains until the very last blackout.

Continues until 30 March 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Twisted comedy thriller

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The Reviews Hub - South East

The South East team is under the editorship of Nicole Craft. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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