Deathtrap, Norwich

CHARLES ROBERTS This has to be the funniest murder mystery any of us is likely to see in the rest of 2002. There may at the end be almost enough dead bodies to provide the props for the last scene of Hamlet.

CHARLES ROBERTS

This has to be the funniest murder mystery any of us is likely to see in the rest of 2002. There may at the end be almost enough dead bodies to provide the props for the last scene of Hamlet. But with wit, verve, and more surprise twists than a New Labour manifesto, Ira Levin's classic script keeps us laughing right to the final… deathtrap.

It was the production's very first night out last night, at the beginning of a tour. Though occasionally it showed, it had nonetheless that essential quality of direction – by the Theatre Royal's own Peter Wilson – which kept it moving at a good steady pace, highlighted the wordplay, focused and highlighted the action, and never once failed to point up the laugh lines.

Deathtrap is not just a play within a play: it's more plot within a plot within a few plots more.

A failing playwright is desperate for a success, despite being married to a rich wife. Enter a young man who seems to have written the thriller of the decade. Just get rid of him, permanently, and steal his ideas and, well, anything could happen.

At which point, stand by for the first of a cavalcade of nifty tail twists, which for a good two hours-plus had last night's audience so totally engrossed and ready for laughs, that there was barely a cough in the sold-out house.

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David Soul is the playwright, Sidney Bruhl, big, burley, with a gravelly voice buried two octaves deep, a character who tells you that he's in control and plans to stay there – until he begins to meet an equally sharp player. Mr Soul relishes every bon mot and each Machiavellian turn of events… but for us East Coast Brits, his American accent is more than a mite difficult to follow.

Susan Penhaligon is his devoted wife, Myra. Easy, relaxed at the outset; then the emotional stuff comes in. But the more emotional she is, the less we want to believe her, even if she does beautiful deep-breathing exercises to steady that dicky heart of hers.

Gerald Kyd, not so much pencil thin as honed down to the lead, and swinging his long legs like a cowboy just out of the saddle, is Clifford, the bright young thriller writer. This Clifford is cool, centred and an adversary not to be taken for granted. Kyd's sense of theatrical balance, his judgment of character, are unshakeable and unobtrusively compelling.

The joker in the pack is Helga ten Dorp, as realised by Becky Hindley. She's a cross between Madam Arcarti in full fling, and Perry Mason sniffing out the baddies. A wee bit OTT, perhaps – but who cares, when it's backed by as much fun and laughter as Miss Hindley extracts from the role.

t Deathtrap is at the Theatre Royal until Saturday January 26. It's a great night out not to be missed.

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