DEATHTRAP

by Ira Levin
Noel Coward Theatre, London, 2010
starring Simon Russell Beale

Ira Levin was a writer who relished his craft, looking after every aspect of what he did as carefully as if he was maintaining a shotgun, keeping all the moving parts oiled and working smoothly. He was unabashedly clever and ingenious, delighting in devising unexpected twists and turns, in building up an atmosphere out of small, apparently mundane domestic details. His style can appear functional, unflashy, but the accumulation of detail results in the creation of a strong sense of menace and growing suspense.

A New Yorker born and bred, Levin decided early on that he wanted to be a writer and held out against his father's expectations that he would follow him into the toy importing business. He wrote his first novel, A Kiss Before Dying, before being drafted into the Army in 1953 and, while still in uniform, worked as a screenwriter on training films and adapted a novel by Mac Hyman, No Time for Sergeants, for Broadway, where it ran for 796 performances. This success encouraged Levin to carry on writing plays through the 1950s and early '60s, with mixed results, although his 1960 play Critic's Choice, in which he first started mining the seam of writing about writing, went down quite well, directed by Otto Preminger and starring Henry Fonda as a critic who has to review his own wife's play.

Levin returned to novel writing with Rosemary's Baby (1967) and this time he really hit the jackpot. It swiftly became a best-seller, before being adapted for the screen and made into a hit film directed by Roman Polanski. The contemporary New York setting, the excitement of a young couple on finding the perfect apartment, their ostensibly friendly neighbours and the growing realisation that evil, satanic forces are at work in this familiar, everyday setting, made a heady brew that readers and cinema audiences found completely compelling. Levin later stated that the realism was enhanced by the fact that his wife was pregnant when he wrote the book. As he later told Publishers' Weekly, he refused to let her read it until their baby was safely delivered.

It was a source of some pride to Ira Levin that with both Rosemary's Baby and his later novel, The Stepford Wives (1972), he introduced a new phrase into the language. Pregnant women feeling less than wonderful or as if kicked from within by cloven hooves would say 'Oh, I'm feeling very Rosemary's Baby today'. The inspired and deeply disturbing notion of a community whose women are gradually turned by their husbands into domestically and sexually compliant robotic creatures, programmed to please, has had people ever since referring to anyone over perfect and submissive as a Stepford Wife.

Levin had a great eye for interior and domestic detail. His stage directions always give precise descriptions of furnishings, curtain patterns, the clothes people are wearing, the exact drinks stocked in the cocktail bar. In later years he became an inveterate writer of letters to the New York Times and was unable to resist, in 2002, responding to an article about Steven Spielberg: 'To the Editor. The crackers that figure in Steven Spielberg's earliest memory were not Tamtams but Tam Tams - a monumental difference, I'm sure you'll agree. Oddly enough, two of my grown sons were reminiscing about them over the Thanksgiving table last week. Hexagonal in shape and lightly salted - the Tam Tams, not my sons - they were a tasty kosher alternative to Ritz and Hi-Ho's. My mother always had a box of them on the kitchen shelf. Great noshing.'

Maybe it's this attention to minutiae that made his novels such a great success as films. He didn't write the screenplays himself but his stories remain remarkably untampered with in Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives and The Boys from Brazil, demonstrating his mastery of structure and suspense.

After this run of best-selling fiction Levin decided it was time to try his hand at another play and the result was Deathtrap. There could hardly be a better example of the 'well-made play', every cog in the machine in perfect working order. It's a wonderfully knowing piece, with its central character, the playwright Sidney Bruhl, acutely and painfully aware of precisely what ingredients go to make a good play but unable to mix them up to good effect himself. There are in-jokes about theatre directors, producers and critics and jokes of course about a how to produce a hit show. As Sidney says about his rival Clifford's work, 'Do you know how much this play could net its author in today's market? Two million dollars, and that's not including the T-shirts.' And over two million dollars is exactly what Ira Levin managed to earn for himself, after an astonishing first run of 1,793 performances.

The film version wasn't such a hit, probably precisely because this is a play about writing plays and therefore is properly at home on stage, in the theatre. It was notable however, for almost the first screen outing of Christopher Reeve after he flew into the public consciousness faster than a speeding bullet in his caped crusader, physique revealing, red and blue Superman outfit. He puts up a pretty good fight against Michael Caine's very un-Connecticut Sidney Bruhl.

In the 1980s, Levin's play Cantorial, about a haunted synagogue, failed as a Broadway blockbuster but was produced in theatres all over the US. His penultimate novel was Sliver (1991), set in a Manhattan sky-rise, with a heroine who discovers that her landlord has installed hidden cameras in every apartment and spies on all his tenants. He loathed the film version, with Sharon Stone, telling the Evening Standard that it 'bore absolutely no resemblance to the book'. His final novel was a sequel, Son of Rosemary (1997), which didn't manage to exert the same extraordinary hold on readers as Rosemary's Baby. There is definitely a resurgence of interest in Levin's writing and the US imprint, Pegasus Books, are reissuing six of his novels this year, including This Perfect Day, which has long been unavailable.

Ira Levin would of course have been thrilled by a West End revival of Deathtrap and would certainly, a writer to his bones, have relished the prospect of the cover being taken off the trusty old Smith Corona typewriter so that the familiar sound of a playwright hitting the keys with a vengeance could resound through the theatre once again.