Agatha Christie’s play, The Mousetrap, opened on November 25, 1952 and is now in its 63rd year. It is, unquestionably, an institution in British theatre. Every year the cast of 8 changes to permit new actor
Well, that is the theory. One presumes.
In practice, like a good many institutions in modern life, The Mousetrap trades on its decades old reputation, resists innovation or real change, and hopes to hobble by, respected and revered for what it was and has achieved, rather than what it actually is.
The current production is directed by Ian Talbot and produced by Sir Stephen Wales-Cohen. It appears faithful to the original production; sitting in the quite beautiful St Martin’s Theatre, it certainly feels like something created and designed in 1952. Although you can’t see the mothballs or the aspic, the sense of revered preservation is acute.
This is puzzling.
Like almost all of Christie’s work, The Mousetrap is cleverly contrived, full of quirky and interesting characters (who can be played as living breathing humans or as stereotypes, depending on the director’s conceit), serviceable dialogue (which can be delivered straight or with an ironic or knowing edge, again depending upon the director) and cunning plot twists.
The original production attracted the talents of Richard Attenborough who stayed for about 700 performances. It is not without its merits and it can provide fertile ground for excellent character actors.
I last saw The Mousetrap in its 60th year and it was in dire shape then. It’s in better shape now, but that seems more by luck than design.
What the production needs more than anything else is fresh directorial vision. This is a play that could be freshened up easily: a different time period, for instance, would immediately inject new life into its veins. Rethinking some characters might yield surprising results – there is, for instance, no reason why all the male characters have to be male. Gender swapping might be productive. I am not sure there is a sound reason why either Major Metcalf or Mr Paravicini need to be men – or white.
While there is a certain, limited, interest in seeing the original set, releasing the play from the bonds of 1952 thinking about design (of all kinds) might yield interesting results. It might, for instance, be nice, compelling even, to have a revolve that opened up the action to more than one room, which permitted the audience to follow at least some of the movements of the characters.
There does seem to have been some innovation. Christopher Wren seems now to be decidedly gay, not in the 1952 sense of that word, but the 2015 sense. Additionally, although this is not quite so straight-forward, Miss Casewell seems to be a lesbian, or at least, that possibility is strongly suggested. Neither development seems particularly necessary or illuminating.
Not much can be said about the plot, nor should it be. This is a classic “Whodunnit?” and despite seeing it relatively recently the intricacies of the plot escaped me as the first Act played out. Christie knew how to present many possible outcomes in the minds of her audience. But, as ever with her work, the joy is in the falling into place of all the pieces.
Some of the acting is much better than expected. Claire Cartwright does an excellent job with Mollie Ralston, making her an independent and strong woman, albeit flawed. She has an eye for a good laugh line and understands that comedy does not need to detract from the detective aspects of the story. She creates a viable and believable character, prim and surprising.
Timothy Knightley is a lovely Metcalf, with a real sense of the Colonel Pickering about him. He plays the duality of the character well. Audrey Palmer makes Mrs Boyle thoroughly revolting and entitled, so her fate comes as no surprise.
The most interesting work comes from Henry Devas as Detective Sergeant Trotter, the part originated by Attenborough. One senses that Devas did not get to the play the part entirely as he might have preferred, but there are aspects of what he does which are inspired and modern, pumping fresh vigour into the character. There is a lot about what Devas does which only makes sense in retrospect, once he has unmasked the killer, but, of course, that is the sign of an intriguing actor – when you can see what he does and follow it, but then realise that all the time he was actually doing something else.
The rest of the cast are not as accomplished as these four, and the pace and vibrancy of the play diminishes when they hold the stage. Largely, this is about direction rather than talent, although in the case of Robert Rees’ Wren it seems to be about misjudged technique.
It is time for a thorough reimagining of this Christie stalwart.