Writer: Agatha Christie
Director: Ian Watt-Smith
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
The Mousetrap is famously the West End’s longest running play, having opened there in November 1952 after a short provincial tour and still running at St Martin’s. None of those involved thought that this play, developed from a short radio play, would last very long: Agatha Christie anticipated a run of eight months, the producer, Peter Saunders, hoped for fourteen. Until now, it has only been possible to see The Mousetrap in London, but to celebrate its diamond jubilee, sixty touring versions across the globe have been set running. So it was not surprising that the New Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham was packed on this cold and unwelcoming winter night; the audience was anticipating a classic.
Set in Monkswell Manor, a country house newly converted to a guest house by its young owners, the set is sumptuous with its wood panelling, staircases, doors and windows. However, it makes the production somewhat static and gives it an old fashioned feel from the off. The collection of characters is motley, and perhaps reflects stereotypes of the time. As the curtain rises the guest house prepares to welcome its first guests on a cold night. The scheduled guests, plus a stranded foreigner, Mr Paravicini, all arrive and are duly stranded by the snow. Mine hosts comprise the young couple, Mr and Mrs Ralston; their guests are the childlike and irrepressible architect, Christopher Wren, the enigmatic Miss Casewell, the sourpuss Mrs Boyle and the affable Major Metcalf. A gruesome murder in London is all over the radio, and the group is joined by Detective Sergeant Trotter, who appears in a protective role after the house is named in a note at the murder scene. None of the assembly seem very pleased to see him, and it would appear all have skeletons in their closets. The plot has Christies’ usual twists, turns and red herrings, with the denouement being both a surprise but also, as in the best fiction of the genre, totally inevitable on reflection. A pleasant night out, indeed.
Unfortunately, the venerable production is showing its age. Christie is perhaps better known for intricate plotting – the how – rather than depth of characterisation – the why – and this is certainly true of The Mousetrap. The characters are two-dimensional and stereotypical, and largely unpleasant in their different ways – it’s rather a relief to see one get bumped off. They are played solidly enough – Steven France is so far over the top as foppish Wren that he could clear an Olympic high jump; Elizabeth Power’s Mrs Boyle is the archetypal grumpy old woman; and Graham Seed’s Major Metcalf is possibly the only likeable character, an oasis of reasonableness. The frustrations of Detective Sergeant Trotter, as no guest will own up to having any involvement in the events leading up to the London murder, are played effectively by Bob Saul. Karl Howman’s Paravicini, however, is lacklustre, a rather flat performance. The central characters of Mr and Mrs Ralston, played by Bruno Langley and Jemma Walker, are somewhat stilted.
Nevertheless, an enjoyable night out with this grand old lady of British theatre? Undoubtedly. After the performance, we feel inducted into a rather exclusive club, a feeling reinforced as the cast ask us to keep the secret of whodunnit. If you’re a Christie fan, it’s well worth a visit, if only to join the club of which I am now a member and to try to untangle the web of direction and misdirection, but don’t expect great psychological insights into the human condition.
Runs until 9th February
Picture: Helen Maybanks