Reviewing a thriller is one of those tasks that isn't always so satisfying. Being implored by producers not to reveal the secrets of the plot, means there's not always a huge amount to tell. But at least this isn't a new offering, it's a revival of a 1978 stage play written by Ira Levin, which was also turned into a film in 1982 starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve. However, I'll do my best not to give too much of the game away for those of you who don't know anything about it.
Simon Russell Beale makes a welcome reappearance in the West End and is in excellent form playing thriller writer Sidney Bruhl. Life hasn't been too kind to Bruhl as his plays haven't exactly been setting the world alight recently. He's had a few successes in his time though, enough to be able to make a few bucks giving writing classes. And when one of his students sends him a script for a new play, Bruhl and his wife see an opportunity to get in on the act and cash-in in the process. So, when the young writer, Clifford Anderson (played by Jonathan Groff) turns up at their home, they're ready to move in on the aspiring playwright's work. From thereon in, it's not so straight forward as the plot starts to weave and wind, like a country lane.
The most striking feature of this production has to be Rob Howell's enormous, complex and rather beautiful set. Apparently, Levin was used to adding meticulous stage directions in his scripts and, though I haven't read the original for this play, I assume that the description of the study was detailed enough for the set-design to be accurate. Whatever the truth might be, the set is a vast structure with massive beams that almost seem to be intertwined like fingers that have been locked together. It's a stunning set that a regiment of engineers would have been proud to build. Added to that, there's terrific lighting from Hugh Vanstone, great sound effects by Simon Baker, as well as subtle and eerily evocative music by Gary Yershon.
Estelle Parsons is the visionary psychic, Helga ten Dorp, who turns-up unexpectedly to warn Bruhl and his wife about the events that are about to unfold. And she reappears in a final scene with Bruhl's lawyer, Porter Milgrim (played by Terry Beaver). Ms Parsons has a thick German accent, and a certain bossiness to go with it. She may be clairvoyant, but not on the weather front, relying on the radio for that all-important information. Nevertheless, Ms Parsons gives us a humorous, if necessarily stereotyped portrayal.
Simon Russell Beale provides a formidable Sidney, prone to cynicism and jokey comments, but convincing us of his inner turmoil caused by a lack of self-esteem and worthiness as a writer. And that's contrasted nicely by Jonathan Groff's energetic and youthful Cliff who finds ideas pouring from his inner store like water flowing down the Niagra Falls, much to Sidney's annoyance. There's also excellent support from Claire Skinner as Sidney's devoted and fearful wife, Myra, and from Terry Beaver as the observant lawyer, Milgrim, who also harbours a desire to be a successful writer.
If you've not seen the film or the play before, then the contortions in the script will not only make you jump – as thrillers are surely meant to do – but it will also keep you guessing about the final outcome. In fact, once you're into the story, you may easily have your own premonition about how it will all turn out, because it is quite predictable in a way – or maybe that's just the benefit of hindsight speaking.
There's a kind of tongue-in-cheek feel to Levin's script with lots of jokey references to writers and directors. For example, referring to the excellence of Cliff's script, Sidney says “A gifted director couldn't hurt it”. Even though the ending is somewhat self-conscious, if not a little trite, the plot is just this side of believability and it's well-crafted and plotted. If you're into thrillers in particular, or surprises in general it should tick your boxes nicely.
"Russell Beale is excellent value and there are genuinely frightening moments, but I'm not convinced this is a classic thriller."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"It’s an enjoyable evening but the play finally feels too smugly delighted by its own ingenuity to be truly satisfying."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"A series of boldly theatrical and frankly camp moments, sometimes very silly yet perfectly calculated to jolt audiences out of their seats."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"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."
Paul Taylor for The Independent