“I’m really looking forward to playing a bombastic, difficult woman,” says former Only Fools and Horses actor Gwyneth Strong. Best known for her role as Cassandra, Rodney’s love interest in the BBC sitcom, Strong will star as the formidable Mrs Boyle in Agatha Christie’s classic murder mystery play, The Mousetrap. Now in its sixty-eighth year, the play is set to embark on a new national tour directed by Gareth Armstrong, which kicks off this week.
Swapping Derek ‘Del Boy’ Trotter for Detective Sgt. Trotter, Strong appears to be tackling the role with the kind of gung-ho querulousness usually reserved for political leaders. Theresa May vowed to be ‘a bloody difficult woman’ during EU negotiations; and across the pond, Hillary Clinton reclaimed Donald Trump’s ‘nasty woman’ jibe as a badge of honour in the run-up to the election. But where does Strong shoehorn Mrs Boyle into all of this?
Well, speaking to The Reviews Hub’s Jack Solloway, Strong says she welcomes roles that celebrate “women and men . . . behaving in all their diversity” – and that includes the good, the bad and the down-right complicated. “I think it’s boring to just see women portrayed in a very narrow prism”, she says.
Indeed, the move is somewhat of a switch for Strong herself. “I really like contrasting the stuff that I’ve done before – and I’d never done any Agatha Christie. I’d always felt, whenever I’d seen any of her stuff, that she’s incredibly good at writing interesting, difficult women. And if you think about when she was writing, and how women were then, she was really ahead of her time.”
The awards season has shown that women also excel at portraying morally muddled characters on-screen and can be just as twisted and compelling as their male counterparts. Strong enjoyed the BBC television series Killing Eve (“loved it!”) about a violent cat-and-mouse game between two women: Villanelle, a psychopathic assassin played by Jodie Comer, stalks an MI5 officer called Eve (Sandra Oh), who is on her tail.
Another crime thriller, this time by Fleabag writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Killing Eve bagged Sandra Oh her second Golden Globe since Grey’s Anatomy, although many felt Comer was snubbed for her unsung performance as the killer. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to fans of Agatha Christie’s novels that anything men can do women can do better – including murder. Take her character from Nemesis, Clotilde Bradbury-Scott, for example, who commits quadruple homicide. Or the 12-year-old Josephine Leonides of Crooked House, who whacked her grandfather over a dispute concerning ballet lessons.
For those who are yet to see it, The Mousetrap is your classic Cluedo-style whodunnit. The play follows the events of Monkswell Manor, a fictional place set in Christie’s home county of Berkshire, after a snowstorm traps a line-up of highly suspicious individuals on the eve of a murder. Mrs Boyle, who does not suffer fools (nor horsing around) gladly – a departure from Strong’s previous role as Cassandra – quickly establishes herself as the most disagreeable of the bunch.
Living up to her name, Strong has an impressive, blood-splatter free record herself when it comes to television crime dramas. She’s survived Midsomer Murders, Murder in Suburbia and not forgetting Silent Witness, which is perhaps the creepiest metaphor for a corpse in television history. She probably even escaped casualty in Casualty. With her not-so-criminal record behind her, Strong returns to her roots on stage for The Mousetrap; her first ever acting role was for the Royal Court Theatre’s production of Live Like Pigs by John Arden when she was eleven.
Despite the odds (over 250 dead in Midsomer alone), Strong has remained an innocuous survivor of procedural drama so making it out of Monkswell Manor alive should be a doddle, if her credits are anything to go by. There have been over 27,000 performances of The Mousetrap to date; and with as many murders in tow, what could possibly go wrong for a horrid stickler like Mrs Boyle? Could you imagine having to pop your clogs every night? Or worse, having to pop some else’s? Come on, Strong. Which is it? Whose clogs are on the line?
“Well, of course, I can’t say!” laughs Strong. “When I sat down to read it, I just got sucked in. I was supposed to be calling somebody and I thought, ‘Oh I’ll read the first half and call them back.’ I just kept on reading, reading, reading, and never called them.” For such a long-running production – the longest running West End show, in fact – it’s a wonder that audiences are still gripped by the story, or that it hasn’t been ruined by aggressively shared, untagged spoilers online.
“I think the audience will be surprised at how quickly they’re sucked into the secrecy and the story”, says Strong. “I think people feel a part of something.” Which is all well and good, but what makes it theatre’s best-kept secret? Murder mysteries are like magic tricks. As soon as you know how it’s done, the play is caught with an ace stuffed up its sleeve, and the magic is lost. It is presumably for this reason that The Mousetrap’s license only permits one other production outside of the West End.
“I suppose it’s the opposite of the way we live now”, says Strong. “There’s one little thing left that has that air of mystery about it.” Perhaps that’s why there’s been a resurgence of interest in Agatha Christie’s works over recent years. Similarly, with the rise of technology, we also seem to have lost the plot in exchange for greater connectivity. Social media has bred factionalism, political division, and – the mother of all red herrings – disinformation.
From Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on The Orient Express to the BBC’s prescient adaptation of The ABC Murders, whodunnits continue to hold our imagination, but also provide an antidote to modern life. Where, today, we have all the answers at our fingertips, Christie reintroduces to us of the joys of not knowing, of submitting yourself to mystery, and of watching a detective unravel the hidden machinations of a logical world.
The Mousetrap begins at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford on 29 January 2019 and then tours. Full details are available at mousetrapontour.com
Jack Solloway | Image: Tristram Kenton