Cardiff’s New Theatre, to me, will always be my hub of experimentation and exploration as it allows me to see plays and musicals that I might not have tried otherwise. The latest thriller to grace the stage, Deathtrap, is no exception. Ira Levin presents a play that is proud of its thriller genre and heritage, more on that later, as it is held up by a cast of five that includes Jessie Wallace and Paul Bradley. Please note that while I will try to keep my comments as general as possible some spoilers may come through.
From the very start of the play, you get scared. There is no getting past that. There is no traditional dimming of the house lights which causes a jump scare as the house lights are shut off. This is repeated at the top of Act Two and even when the house lights come on at the conclusion of the play. From a technical point of view, I think that this is an excellent shift away from the ordinary and it immediately unsettles the audience. The only downside to an opening as dramatic as this one is that the rest, mainly the lighting direction and the jump scares, of the play has to live up to it.
The lighting was honestly the most impressive part of this play. It was gorgeously done as it makes the set fade from the seemingly perfect family home to the sinister, tense murder house that it becomes. the lighting is what made the tense scenes completely terrifying and it made me so scared during those moments of horror. If the lighting wasn’t done as well as it is then this play would not have been nearly as scary or thrilling. The sound design also played a massive part in this by adding to the growing suspense and this was done subtly but traditionally and very well.
However, in terms of the jump scares, act one became a little bit predictable. The difference between the main jump scare of this act and the opening lighting change is that the audience is not expecting the house lights to shut off. This can also be seen in act two where the most terrifying segment is that with the suit of armor, rather than the jump scares as such. I must admit they were cleverly done especially the two towards the end of act two which were less predictable.
Overall the story of this play just seemed quite mismatched. The play attempted to be very meta by talking about the character’s writing a play which is blow-for-blow the play that they are living and acting in front of the audience. This fact is repeated so much by so many characters, both before and after the events being stated occur, that the level of repetitiveness becomes slightly boring for the audience.
This is mainly seen in the predictions scattered throughout the play. It is predicted that a lady with a dagger will stab a man because of a play. There are only two women in this cast and one of them is killed at the end of act one. This means that a big event in the conclusion of the play is given away simply by the genre of the play. While thriller plays can see characters return from seemingly being dead they do not deal with ghosts or spectral visitations. This fact alone made it pretty obvious to me who this woman would be and shows how the play’s attempt to be meta and the focus on its status as a thriller can, in fact, give some events away.
The characters are one dimensional in the sense that they don’t get a huge amount of development. Wallace’s character, for example, does not have a huge amount of time on stage so her character is always and only the ‘worried wife’. I do also wish that the attorney was more involved within the narrative. Despite this and the limitations of the narrative, the actors are extremely dedicated to their roles. The sheer lack of breaks in characters made them feel as genuine as possible when dealing with their one-dimensional natures.
The faults with the characters are only seen in the script. For a play so obsessed with the narrative order of events it is sad that it is exactly this which lets it down. It seemed that the only parts of development given to the characters, beyond their desire to take credit for the writing of Deathtrap, faded into pointlessness. I am an advocate of presenting homosexuality on stage but it needs to have a purpose and development. However, in this play, the homosexual aspect is only mentioned twice and doesn’t seem to impact the intentions, motivations, and actions of the characters throughout. It simply seems like a throwaway aspect which left me simply a little confused as to why it was included at all.
Personally, I think that if you are a fan of traditional thrillers then you will certainly have a good time watching Deathtrap. They incorporate film clips of well-known thrillers like Gaslight and Dial M for Murder which is a nice wink towards the play’s roots in the thriller genre. Also, if you are a fan of jump scares and the technical side of theatre then this will be perfect for you. I certainly did enjoy the play but I simply wish that certain aspects of character and story were both developed and tightened further to make it something that I could really sink my teeth into and enjoy completely.
Deathtrap is booking until Saturday the 14th of October at Cardiff’s New Theatre. Book your tickets here: http://www.newtheatrecardiff.co.uk/what’s-on/deathtrap/
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