Writer: Agatha Christie
Director: Ian Watt-Smith
Reviewer: Mark Clegg
“Don’t give away the ending -” beseeched the tagline of Hitchcock’s classic movie Psycho, “it’s the only one we have!” A similar request is made to the audience of this play during the curtain calls. We are all now partners in crime and share the answer to one of theatre’s best kept secrets.
The Mousetrap is full of mysteries, the biggest being how a play can run for sixty unbroken years on the West End and how the solution to this whodunit could remain relatively guarded throughout that time. Neither of these questions receive fully satisfactory answers from this Diamond Anniversary touring production, but the packed house at Darlington Civic Theatre suggested that a lot of people are interested in investigating it.
The play is full of the usual whodunit clichés, many of which Agatha Christie invented in the first place – the country house setting, the storm that isolates the action, the mysterious foreigner, the nursery rhyme motif – but clichés only become clichés because they work so well. The fact that this play can use them to its advantage and even make a few post-modern references to them shows that this is far from the bog standard country house murder mystery that so many others have tried and failed to replicate.
But what can be said about a play that has run for literally a lifetime in the West End, and whose most basic plot details could potentially contain spoilers? Well let’s tread carefully….
The curtain opens on a breath-taking set. Wood panelled walls and doors, a massive fireplace, beautifully detailed arches, snow falling outside a large ornate window – I cannot recall seeing such impressive scenery outside the West End for a long time. This is Monkswell Manor Guest House, newly set up by Mollie and Giles Ralston (Jemma Walker and Bruno Langley) and it is not long before their first set of guests arrive through the blizzard that surrounds the house. Christopher Wren (Steven France) is an eccentric young man who may have hidden depths, Major Metcalfe (Graham Seed) is a retired army man who might have a secret and Mrs Boyle (Elizabeth Power) is an old battleaxe who has all the best lines but who may also be more than she seems. The group is completed with Miss Casewell (Clare Wilkie) and Karl Howman as Mr Paravicini, the aforementioned mysterious foreigner who dispenses regular cryptic comments. Once these characters are efficiently established in a short space of time, the cat is set among the pigeons as DS Trotter (Bob Saul) arrives with enquiries about a murder that happened earlier that day in London and the fact that at least one of the people in the house is implicated. It would not spoil anything to say that act one ends with the violent death of one of these characters and one of the greatest joys of the evening are the discussions that take place during the interval as to the identity of the murderer.
The cast are excellent. Walker in particular impresses in the rôle of Mollie and I very much enjoyed Power’s acerbic Mrs Boyle and Howman’s swarthy Paravicini. The direction has some nice little flourishes and the relative lightness and humour of act one makes way for intense enquiries and revelations after the interval.
This is not Christie’s best work by far and yet is simple structure and small cast allow the audience to become engrossed in the central mystery, and the absence of Christie’s star players Poirot and Marple means that just about anything can happen.
This is a solid piece of theatre and although its record breaking success may still be more mysterious than the plot, the phenomenon that is The Mousetrap is very well served by this production and shows absolutely no sign of slowing down. Long may it reign.