Deathtrap, review: Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne, until July 20

Deathtrap
Deathtrap

Watch where you walk. Deathtrap, Ira Levin’s classic, is waiting to ensnare you at the Devonshire Park Theatre this week.

Some thrillers are designed to grip us by the shoulder and steadily tighten the grip. Others, the more light-hearted kind, will tease us and puzzle us and suddenly knock us sideways. Deathtrap is the latter form of the genre.

Tongue in cheek, unafraid to coax a chuckle from the audience, this production is great fun. The acting is crisp and accomplished and – within the limitations of a quite cliched script – the characters all convince. And even if you know the story, the key moments in the plot will still startle you.

Juxtapose the words Death and Trap, and you have the gist of the plot. Sidney Bruhl is a crime writer living with wife Myra in 1970s Connecticut. The house is ever so slightly isolated – aren’t they always – and when eager young student Clifford Anderson makes contact, Bruhl invites him to make the trip.

Anderson (no relation) has some creative writing ideas which set Bruhl creatively thinking. And rather absurdly, within minutes the author is hatching a plot to steal the ideas and errm, cut the young man’s career gruesomely short. Indecent haste, maybe, but it makes for a decently and genuinely engrossing story.

The slight sense of surreal is only enhanced by Geoff Gilder’s darkly menacing set, all the walls lined with Bruhl’s alarming collection of lethal knives and implements, and Keith Tuttle lights the whole show atmospherically.

Enter then, our young victim, played with a lovely sense of naive vulnerability by Ewan Goddard and welcomed by Ross Watson’s Bruhl, controlling and enigmatically sinister. There is genuine chemistry as characters toy with each other, and a sensitive treatment of the Love that Dares only Whisper its Name. And when you least expect it – there is sudden, shocking violence.

If Bruhl is the emotionless psychopath, then Katy Dean’s Myra, possibly the most sympathetic character on show, is a kind of Conscience of the King. Whether she succeeds in assuaging the menacing threat, I could not possibly tell you, but be sure that there are plenty of twists in the plot to keep you engrossed.

John Hester, an actor who will surely one day merit a statue outside the Devonshire Park, returns to his favourite stage not – as so often – as a wise, unflappable policeman but as a wise, unflappable neighbour who might just avert the crime but will certainly resolve it.

And there is a splendid cameo from Natasha Gray as the local eccentric psychic Helga Ten Dorf – which has to be an anagram for something. Unflatteringly dressed and wigged but unnervingly prescient, Helga threatens persistently to undermine the fiendish plotting, but never quite does so.

For phil&ben Productions (with no sign this time of Ben Roddy) Phil Stewart directs crisply and with a great feel for the genre. A few scares, a few laughs, and a very enjoyable production.

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