Writer: Agatha Christie
Director: Ian Watt-Smith
Reviewer: Andrew Liddle
Everybody in Britain and Ireland now has the chance to see one of the greatest, most enduring institutions in popular theatre. The Diamond Anniversary tour of Agatha Christie’s ingenious whodunit, The Mousetrap, began in Canterbury last September and will end in Dublin next June, having taken in most of the largest and most prestigious theatres in these islands.
It’s been running in London without interruption since November 1952, having actually received its world premier at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham, a few weeks earlier. There is a certain poignancy in the way that this anniversary of the ‘Queen of Crime’s’ most famous work is coinciding with that other Diamond Jubilee.
The actual sixtieth anniversary of the very first London performance, at the Ambassadors Theatre, actually, coincided with press night at the Alhambra, although the good people of Bradford were not, perhaps, aware of that until it was announced at the end. It is doubtful, however, if being part of such a significant milestone could have added to their pleasure which was absolute, their having been held spellbound all night by one of the most tightly plotted and adroit examples of this ever-popular genre.
Sixty years on and having provided employment for more than 400 actors in the course of thousands of performances, the play undoubtedly retains its capacity to enthrall and shock, even the most sophisticated of modern audiences who know all about double bluffs and red herrings and twists and counter-twists.
Yet, there is – and was – nothing very original about the stock characters snow-bound in an English country manor house. The irascible widow and terrible snob, Mrs Boyle, played splendidly by Jan Waters (whom people of a certain age will remember as a gloriously frivolous wireless voice on Round The Horn and The Navy Lark) seems to have the unhappy knack of alienating everybody, even those spared her withering quips.
When the lights go out and someone meets their doom enter the young sleuth to solve the case. Thomas Howes might have been cast to prove the adage that the older you get the younger the police seem. He certainly plays Detective Sergeant Trotter with youthful energy and a somewhat manic air. Rather like a certain comic French detective of later provenance, he seems to suspect everybody and the least likely the most. Still there is method in his madness as one by one he shifts through the possibles.
One clear early favourite seems to be Steven France’s impossible Christopher Wren, originally the silly ass stock character but in modern times now allowed to be a little more fay. Then there’s the retired army officer, Major Metalf – who as played by the redoubtable Graham Seed allows Archers’ fans to put a face to the late Nigel Pargetter (who made his untimely exit from the long-running soap last year). This army man might not be all he seems. But then the same could easily be said about the couple who own the manor and are taking in paying guests for the first time. Mollie, done to a turn by Jemma Walker, is so edgy and brittle there must be a reason for it. And Bruno Langley – once Coronation Street’s incorrigible Todd Grimshaw – adds a slightly sinister undertone to many of her husband Giles’s expostulations.
Strangely, the most obviously fake character, Mr. Paravcini, who simply wanders in out of the snow, probably incites our suspicions the least. We assume the dodgy Italian accent given to him by the vastly experienced character actor, Karl Howman, is deliberate – and this only adds to our feeling that no one so obviously lacking all those qualities esteemed in the previous age could actually be the villain. Wouldn’t it be much too obvious? Or could this be another double bluff, we wonder, as he continues to specialise in the untoward.
And let’s not forget Miss Casewell, nicely judged by Clare Wilkie, who has been keeping a very low profile but seems to know much more than she should, bearing in mind she’s supposed to have been living abroad for the last several years.
At the end all those who see The Mousetrap are sworn to secrecy about who actually did it. Remarkably the secret has pretty much endured even in these Googling times, and there was an audible gasp when, eventually, after many a false climax, the truth was at last out.
Another performance had come to a close, sixty years to the very day, and another audience were taking to their feet about to leave. This critic could not help noticing the pervading silence as people moved along the rows – rapt in thought. It was more like the sort of catharsis experienced at the end of great tragedy than usually found in the anticlimax of the popular school of murder mystery. It was pretty much the same reaction as when he first saw the play forty years ago and, again, twenty years later. Such silence speaks volumes for the particular, peculiar, almost indefinable hold exerted by The Mousetrap. It also suggests it may well survive another sixty years!