There is something that just feels right about indulging in a thriller at the start of autumn. The encroaching darkness, the gathering storms and the chill creeping into the air all sit perfectly with curling up in the stalls for a devious tale of murder, manipulation and suspense.
So it is ideal timing for this revival of Ira Levin’s comic thriller Deathtrap. Ideal timing is also what the audience gets from the cast, led by Simon Russell Beale, who know how long to hold a pause for maximum chilling impact and exactly when to deliver the comic line.
Russell Beale is, of course, a master at this, though his talent for understated humour is rarely as lauded as his more tragic outings. In Deathtrap, it is a bit of a stretch to see Russell Beale’s struggling writer, Sidney Bruhl, as a possible murderer. Yes, he is down on his luck. Yes, he has financial difficulties. But his quick wit and dry humour presents a character still finding the fun in life. Of course, if every murderer looked out at the world from under furrowed brows and never smiled, they would be easy to spot.
The show’s programme comes with a plea that the play’s plot is kept as close to the audience’s chest as a concealed revolver. So here is as much as I can tell you, hopefully without giving too much away: Bruhl, no longer the hit-writing scribe he once was, receives a piece from a new writer through the post. Recognising it as a hit, he invites this young upstart – Jonathan Groff’s driven, naïve Clifford Anderson – to his home hoping to convince him to collaborate. When Anderson refuses, events become a little life-endangering.
Levin’s plot takes more unexpected turns than a novice Strictly Come Dancing contestant as it works its way through the many levels of deception, but never takes itself too seriously. The starting point of a struggling playwright aiming to write a new hit thriller leads to as many theatrical in-jokes as there are moments of breath-holding suspense. The Rob Howell-designed set – a gorgeous country home dominated by bare wooden beams and patterned rugs – features so many ornamental weapons that you find yourself wondering exactly which ones might be used in which way, like a personal game of theatrical Cluedo.
When all is said and dead, Deathtrap is an enjoyable, amusing romp of a thriller that delivers laughs and frights at exactly the right time and feels as correct for this time of year as a steaming apple crumble… but with added blood.