Review: Deathtrap at the Burton Taylor

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How far should a playwright go for the sake of his art? Thievery? Murder? Allowing it to be performed chaotically by a group of over-enthusiastic Oxford undergraduates, perhaps? This 1978 play by Ira Levin suffers from all three unfortunate events but luckily remains partially entertaining.

Suffering from writer’s block, ageing dramatist Sydney Bruhl, invites a young student, Clifford Anderson, to his house in rural Connecticut to ask him for advice on his first script. Meanwhile Myra, Sydney’s wife, worries for Clifford’s safety as Sydney dreams up numerous murderous plots in order to steal his play – and its subsequent success and riches – from Clifford, and rightly so… 

The scene is set for an hour and a half of thrills, intrigue and black comedy but, just as the variety of weapons which adorn the backdrop waiting to play their part in the multiple homicides of this performance; they are, like me, sadly disappointed. The first act is very stilted. Uneasiness with the script is only a minor excuse, the majority of the blame lies in a lack of chemistry and awkward staging. Myra and Sydney are a mismatched husband and wife; to begin with I even thought they were father and daughter. They carry themselves unnaturally around the stage, each other and especially between that desk and the hat stand – please, just move it forward an inch or two and save yourselves, and the audience, from the awkward nuisance.

Act two is more enjoyable. The two leads work better together, but while the dialogue and action becomes repetitive and predictable, what becomes stranger here is the plot. Decisions seem to be taken without clear motive, whether this is the fault of the text or the rendition I’m not certain, but are the ensuing crimes committed for money, passion, honour, or merely because the stage directions say so?

What was crystal clear though was the absence of laughter. Most of the jokes are foreseeable and the Indian psychic, though the actress makes a valiant attempt at sincerity, was an unfortunate and underdeveloped stereotype. The frequent plot twists make this drama take U-turns almost as embarrassing as those of a politician. Ultimately, this five-man thriller taking place at the Burton Taylor might be forgiven for suffering some nerves on their first night, but not this many nerves, not this much awkwardness.

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