I like to think that I would walk through fire to watch Simon Russell Beale recite the Argos catalogue. All the same, I did wonder how desperate I was to see him in this revival of Ira Levin's 1978 mega-hit, Deathtrap. But even if you're the kind of person for whom the term "comedy thriller" normally has all the appeal of, say, "morris dancing" or "make-over programme", you'll still find much to enjoy in Matthew Warchus's well-judged, witty production, which expertly balances the teasing tension and the arch, tongue-in-cheek humour.
The producers have officially requested that punters "keep the plot a secret and don't spoil the fun for future audiences". So let's just say that the action unfolds in a converted Connecticut stable, stuffed with souvenir weapons, where Sidney Bruhl, a once-successful Broadway thriller writer, broods on the fact that he hasn't had a smash in 18 years. It adds insult to injury when he receives in the post a perfect example of the genre written by a young "twerp" whom he recently taught in a creative- writing class. When the attractive neophyte arrives, bearing the only copy, well, you don't need me to tell you what our blocked, envious hero contemplates.
With characters vying for possession of a murderous doubling-crossing stage-scenario that they are test-running in reality, the show has a built-in excuse for relentlessly jokey self-congratulation at its own ingenious meta-theatricality. It could get terribly grating, but Warchus wisely keeps the campiness within bounds and skilfully softens up the audience for the genuinely scary surprises.
Jonathan Groff (of Glee fame) brings a winning charm to the deceptively admiring apprentice, while Russell Beale delivers a masterclass in bilious comic timing as the embittered author. His little Gorgon glares of disgust (at the thought, say, of being "the spiritual father" of his rival's work) are all the funnier for being quite low-key. His portrayal of this driven man has a deliciously paradoxical quality of relaxation. In the role of the remorse-stricken wife, Clare Skinner strikes a nicely irritating note of ethereal nerviness. And Estelle Parsons is entertainingly over-the-top as an eccentric Dutch psychic. You don't need her powers of ESP to predict that Deathtrap is about to be a hit all over again.
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