A TWIST IN THE TALE
As popular as ever in London’s West End, The Mousetrap is also on its first nationwide tour. Sixty-four years after it first opened, Crime Scene finally gets around to experiencing Agatha Christie’s classic murder mystery.
Sir Stephen Waley-cohen, producer of the world’s longestrunning play, is affable but incredulous following a Friday night performance of The Mousetrap. According to the wooden sign in the foyer it was show number 26,538 for the famous production of Agatha Christie’s murder mystery – but for Crime Scene it really was the first time. Maybe not the last, though. “People do go back, they take their children or grandchildren,” says Waley-cohen. The Mousetrap is something you can plan your life around.
If you’re a crime reader – and especially if you’re an Agatha Christie fan – it’s a play you really have to get around to seeing eventually. You don’t even have to go to London – The Mousetrap has recently been filling theatres around the country on its first nationwide tour. “It’s terrific,” says Mathew Prichard, who was famously gifted the rights to the play on his ninth birthday by his grandmother, Agatha Christie. “I would hardly have believed that there were enough people who hadn’t seen it in London to go and see it in the provinces – but I would have been proved spectacularly wrong.”
While there are always hot tickets in the West End, such as Harry Potter And The Cursed Child, there’s nothing that comes close to the staying power of The Mousetrap. When it reached 25,000 performances and 60 years, an Agatha Christie memorial in the shape of a giant book was erected nearby. Her play actually broke the record for performances way back in 1958, by which point it had been at the Ambassadors Theatre for fiveand-a-half years. Following its move – without missing a performance – next door to the St Martin’s Theatre in 1974, The Mousetrap has now been running for almost 64 years.
“It’s a long time, isn’t it?” says Waley-cohen, who took over as producer in 1994 and has seen it about 40 times. “To have become the world’s longest-running show in 1958, it means that every performance since then has been a world record. So we break the world record eight times a week.”
Millions of people may have seen the show, but entering the world of The Mousetrap feels like you’re finally being let in on a theatrical secret (assuming you avoided the one big spoiler). To preserve the mystery, at the end of the performance, the audience is told: “Now you have seen The Mousetrap you are our partners in crime, and we ask you to preserve the tradition by keeping the secret of whodunit locked in your hearts.”
Waley-cohen declines to discuss the identity of the killer, and Prichard once protested at the prominence of the solution on Wikipedia (it’s since been moved further down the online encyclopaedia’s entry). But like many Christie novels, The Mousetrap is probably almost as enjoyable second time around, when you already know the ending. What the play shares with her books is that period atmosphere
– in this case, a country house in the midst of snowstorm, a few years after the Second World War. For the many tourists who flock to the show, the Agatha Christie setting is probably as alluring as the fogbound London streets of Sherlock Holmes stories. “She’s a big name in China,” says Waley-cohen, who took the London production to Shanghai in 2010.
Any fears the play might have become hoary tourist fodder are soon dispatched by the freshness of the production and the engaging performances. The story’s upmarket guesthouse is impressively staged: there’s a sense of scale from staircases and a cellar even though the set is essentially one room, while a snow machine sets the chilly winter scene outside the window. But while The Mousetrap may be the archetypal English murder mystery – a dead body and a houseful of suspects, each of them with a secret – Christie’s sinister stories are never cosy. There’s a true crime case behind The Mousetrap, as well as a sense of the postwar social order being shaken up.
The longevity of the play is partly explained by its family appeal. It’s entry-level crime that shouldn’t give you nightmares, though it has a few gentle frights as well as a hint of farce in the hyperactive guest Christopher Wren. The bad-tempered Mrs Boyle is a wonderful creation – she could have been one of Basil Fawlty’s troublesome guests. Following the sly humour of the first act, the play becomes more menacing after the interval, and the final revelation is clever if not quite Christie at her most ingenious. As a theatrical finale, though, it works a treat. Christie’s plot is the attraction rather than any big names, though the play did originally open with Richard Attenborough and Sheila Sim – a pairing that set it off to a flying start at the box office. It has also had a few celebrity guests in the audience, including Quentin Tarantino, whose The Hateful Eight is a nod to Christie. Yet in some ways the enduring success is surprising because it’s probably not Christie’s finest play. Waley-cohen admits that Witness For The Prosecution is better, though he notes that it is “very difficult to do successfully as a play because it has a very large cast”.
Perhaps its success is also down to the fact that The Mousetrap is an exclusively theatrical event. The film contract has a clause that allows a movie to be made only after the end of the West End run – and there’s no sign of that. “I think it endures because of its own history now,” says Waley-cohen. “I’ve said it before and I say it every time I’m asked: I don’t see why the show should ever come to an end.”
The Mousetrap is on a nationwide tour until 10 December (for details, visit mousetrapontour.com) and taking bookings at London’s St Martin’s Theatre up to 2018.
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Every performance now sets a new record.