One of the sleeper hits of recent years, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out grossed $312.9 million – off a modest budget of $40 million – and has been popular enough to spawn a sequel, the newly released Glass Onion. Proof, if it were needed, that the murder mystery genre is as popular as ever.
See How They Run, a backstage murder-comedy, revolving around an attempt to film The Mousetrap, was recently in cinemas. And now we have the original article, a touring version of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery, which has been playing in the West End for 70 years (a virtually continuous run, broken only by the pandemic).
Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, is generally regarded as the first literary detective novel, though it was Agatha Christie who developed and honed the rock solid ‘whodunit’ format which most writers who followed her have imitated, albeit with subtle variations (TV’s Columbo being one of the best; we know whodunit in the first ten minutes, the question is more ‘when will they be caught?’)
Torquay born Christie wrote 66 novels, and 14 short story collections, in a writing career which spanned fifty years. It’s perhaps less well known that she was also a playwright, penning over a dozen stage plays, including The Mousetrap. Why has it survived so long? Because of a generous verbal contract between writer, cast and audience: that nobody should reveal the killer’s identity after the curtain comes down.
As the radio broadcasts regular updates of a murder in London, a group of seven strangers find themselves snowed in at a remote country guesthouse, run by married couple Mollie and Giles Ralston (Joelle Dyson and Laurence Pears). Guests include budding young architect ‘Christopher Wrenn’ – engagingly played by a hyperactive Elliot Clay – and tetchy misanthrope Mrs Boyle (Gwyneth Strong, effortlessly managing to shake off the spectre of Cassandra in Only Fools and Horses). Glamorously aloof, and dressed in masculine attire, Miss Casewell (Essie Barrow) makes vague reference to a childhood trauma. The fly in the ointment – or maybe he’s just a red herring – is garrulous, stereotypical Italian Mr Paravicini (John Altman): ‘I am the unexpected guest’, he trills with an air of triumph, ‘the guest you did not invite … a man of mystery!’ Yes, we get the point. Enter no nonsence skiing copper Detective Sgt Trotter (Joseph Reed), who informs the guests that a killer is in the house. With nothing much to lose, the characters reveal the personal secrets that continue to haunt them.
The killer is ‘mentally unstable’, we are told. The murder itself is a long time coming, at the end of Act One, and joint directors Ian Talbot and Denise Silvey build up the tension nicely. The event itself seems thrown away, taking place in darkness with muted screams. How thrilling it would be to present this scene by candlelight – or to see the killer’s actions illuminated with a shaft of moonlight.
On the plus side, the drawing room set – care of Splinter Scenery – is rather fabulous; I’d happily spend a weekend at Monkswell Manor sprawled on a chaise lounge, nursing an egg nog latte.
The Mousetrap isn’t Christie’s best work by a long chalk (it was originally a short story). For those who’ve devoured her better known novels – such as Murder on the Orient Express – it feels a tad pedestrian. What’s missing of course, is larger than life detective Hercule Poirot, and his little grey cells; Sgt Trotter just isn’t in the same league as Belgium’s most famous export (after Tin Tin, of course).
Still, it’s a briskly paced, fun night out. And the twist itself is a complete surprise; like playing a game of Cluedo and discovering a new character has appeared in the deck (Brigadier Bumbag, perhaps?). Anyone foolish enough to publicly reveal the killer’s identity will face the wrath of the Christie estate, and endure a spanking with Hercule Poirot’s wet galoshes. You have been warned.
The Mousetrap 70th anniversary tour is at the Opera House, Manchester from 28 November to 3 December 2022.