When I was twelve years old, my parents took my little sister and me on a four-week round-trip with our trailer in England and Wales. It was during that trip that we spent one night in Covent Garden and watched the world’s longest-running play, Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap. The setting is Monkswell Manor in rural Berkshire during a snow storm. Only recently, this manor has been converted into a bed & breakfast.
Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap: as English as tweed, mansions, and bad weather
I remember quite vividly how the play epitomized Englishness to me. Of course the location had to be a castle-like mansion, not an inner-city apartment. The location had to be in the countryside, not in town. The weather had to be bad, it couldn’t be sunny. Everyone was wearing proper clothes like tweed jackets, sturdy coats, Oxford shoes, plaid socks. They couldn’t just rock up in jeans or khakis and a T-shirt or sweater. Status and the class system had to play an important role.
Third cousin to the Queen
Interestingly none of the characters in Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap are proper upper class from what I can tell, but allusions to status and the class system can be found everywhere. In most countries anyone who owns a manor outright would qualify for upper class. Here in Old Blighty, minor nobility and anyone who’s not filthy rich is seen as upper middle class. You’re really only upper class if you’re a billionaire with the right connections and manners, or at least a third cousin to the reigning monarch.
All pics here (c) St Martin’s Theatre, except where otherwise mentioned. Pics show different performances with different casts.
Not your average Joes
The characters had to be quirky and slightly eccentric, they couldn’t be straight-talking, relaxed average Joes like in many American plays. Worries about the food had to be involved (the topic is brought up early on when the risk of running out of food supplies is discussed). In a French play, in stark contrast, lengthy lavish meals are separated by short inter-meal periods where everyone sips claret, champagne, or cognac.
A megastar many decades before Michael Jackson was born
At the age of twelve I was a huge fan of Agatha Christie and had read at least a dozen of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot novels. I haven’t read any of her novels in a long time, but I think I’d still enjoy it.
The sheer numbers concerning her oeuvre are impressive. Dame Agatha Christie sold more than two billion novels. One single book of hers (And Then There Were None) sold more than 100 million times. She is the most-translated author of all time. Christie lived to the age of 85 and published roughly the same number of books, 66 of which were detective novels.
Best crime writer of all time
She won many awards. The Crime Writers’ Association voted her the best crime writer of all time and her novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd the best crime novel ever. More than 30 major feature films and vast numbers of TV adaptations are based on her novels.
The World’s Longest Running Play
Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap has been running continuously from 1952 to March 2020, when it was discontinued until May 2021 due to the pandemic. This makes it the world’s longest running play. Personally, I’d even feel inclined to disregard the Covid interruption, as it was entirely out of the control of the theatre and affecting playhouses all over the world. I’d say it’s been running continuously since 1952. There, I said it.
It has been watched by more than ten million people over a stretch of roughly 28,000 performances.
Hunt the Thimble and Nylons from Gibraltar
The language spoken contains only few terms that the average audience member would struggle with. Nonetheless, I found the glossary in the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s Study Guide to the play quite useful. You learn that Hunt the Thimble is a party game, in which all but one partygoer leaves the room. The person remaining in the room hides a thimble, or other small object, somewhere in the room. When everyone comes back in, they must locate the hidden item.
We find out that in the 1950s nylons from Gibraltar were illegally smuggled back into England, where they had initially been produced. This was done to get around post-war domestic trade restrictions. As food lovers we do know Aga cookers. Many of the English colloquial terms are equally familiar to us, but might not be to readers who don’t live here.
Toast of London
As you would expect of a play of the Mousetrap’s standing, it has been referenced in culture and art many times over the years. Matt Berry’s Toast of London is one of my favourite sitcoms. One of the episodes is called The Moosetrap and involves Steven Toast, the main character, an actor, accidentally revealing the killer’s identity in the play. A cardinal sin that nearly ruins his existence. As you might know, at the end of each performance of The Mousetrap the audience members are being asked not to reveal the surprise ending. The Moosetrap is no different in that regard.
In the Moosetrap episode the actors, apart from Steven Toast, who plays the sergeant, are all in their late eighties and early nineties. There is no director. The play has been running for so long, no one remembers where the script is. There is hardly anyone in the audience.
When Ellie and I visited Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap at St Martin’s Theatre a couple of months ago, the house was full, by Covid standards. There were two empty seats between each group of guests or individuals who had come on their own. Many of the guests were families and young folk.
It’s the butler
My efforts to tease Ellie by pretending to vividly remember that the murderer was the butler, were doomed to fail as soon as she found out that there is no butler involved in the play.
The play is based on a real-life murder case that had been all over the papers at the time the play was written. Three orphans had been mistreated badly by their foster parents on a farm in rural England. One of them had died. Both foster parents had been sent to jail. The play’s background story, which is gradually being revealed through news playing on the main hall’s radio and by the characters’ speech, starts with a murder in Paddington, London.
The first mouse
While the foster father had died as a convicted murderer in prison, the foster mother, who had not been convicted of murder but of turning a blind eye, had been recently released. She gets murdered and the unknown killer leaves a notebook at the scene that mentions two addresses under the headline “Three Blind Mice.” One address is the murder scene in Paddington. The other address is Monkswell Manor.
Two more blind mice will get killed at Monkswell Manor
There is only one conclusion. Two more murders relating to the farm and people who had turned a blind eye will happen. And they will happen at Monkswell Manor.
Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap has the following characters:
Mollie Ralston – the owner of Monkswell Manor, Giles’s wife; she recently inherited the property
Giles Ralston – the husband of Mollie who runs Monkswell Manor together with her
Christopher Wren – the first guest to arrive at the hotel, Wren is a hyperactive, rather weird-acting man in his early twenties; he openly admits that he is running away from something, but won’t say what it is; Wren claims to have been named after the architect of the same name by his parents
Mrs Boyle – a miserable, nasty, upper middle-class woman in her late sixties who constantly complains about everything
Major Metcalf – a chirpy, witty old chap in his early sixties, retired from the army
Miss Casewell – a strange, aloof, tomboy woman who casually mentions horrific experiences from her childhood
Mr Paravicini – next to nothing is known about this man claiming to be Italian, who says that he had to abandon his Rolls Royce after it had overturned in a snowdrift; he seems to be faking his accent and using make-up in order to look older
Detective Sergeant Trotter – He arrives in a snow storm and questions the proprietors and guests.
One by one, the guests arrive. The last arrival is Sergeant Trotter, who reaches Monkswell Manor on skis after the road has become completely blocked.
He informs the landlady, her husband, and the guests about the danger they’re in and about the facts as they have transpired so far.
All pictures directly above and from here (c) BSqB except 2x newspaper scans (c) The Daily Mirror.
Trotter the intruder
For a long time, the guests perceive the sergeant as a rather irritating intruder. They do not believe that they are at risk. Then a second blind mouse gets killed, and the situation changes. The risk becomes very real and the guests start accusing each other. It is clear that the murderer must be one of the persons present. One of the two surviving orphans? Perhaps someone close to the three children? Still the third mouse is not willing to out themselves. Everyone pretends to be an unconnected bystander.
No one is who they seem
Gradually the stories of the guests fall apart. It turns out no one is who he or she seems to be. The guests gradually descend into a frenzy.
Actors acting as actors
Sergeant Trotter tries to keep a cool head. He interrogates the guests. He even makes them re-enact the second murder, that has just happened at the Manor. First he determines where everyone has been, what they have been doing at the time of the murder. Then he switches the persons and sends a different person to re-enact exactly what the actual person pretends to have done at the time. All at the same time.
After 2h20m running time (not including one intermission) the ending comes as a surprise to most audience members, I hear. I believe it probably came as a surprise to twelve-year old me. That said, Christie does give the audience enough clues to guess who dunnit.
Ellie and I greatly enjoyed the evening. Let’s be honest, it would be a terrible waste if the theatre employed the world’s greatest actors for a play like this one. They didn’t. The individual performances were very solid throughout, though.
Until recently Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap had two separate casts
For the first three months since reopening, until July, two months ago, St Martin’s Theatre had two actors for each role, not counting understudies. Our night featured Adam Lilley as white Giles Ralston. On some other nights Giles Ralston would have been played by Nicholas Bailey, who is black, etc.
A few special mentions: Adam Lilley as Giles Ralston
Lilley seemed terribly familiar to both of us, but we couldn’t put our finger down on it. He has been playing leading parts in a very large number of productions both on stage and TV. We found his performance very convincing, but his role didn’t give him enormous room to impress.
Cassidy Janson as Mollie Ralston
Cassidy Janson, who we have enjoyed in Avenue Q, plays Mollie. She has played many major parts in popular West End productions. Perhaps because her role didn’t give her as much opportunity as some of the other characters would have, my memory of her performance is mainly as wholesome, personable, but with no specific highlights.
Alexander Wolfe as Christopher Wren
Alexander Wolfe as Christopher Wren was intentionally annoying, hectic, compulsive, and over the top, but in a good way. Over some stretches of the evening he carries the play along almost single-handedly. Very amusing. We believe we might remember him from Midsomer Murders. He’s been busy on stage, TV and the big screen for a long time, despite his young age.
Derrick Griffiths as Major Metcalf
Derrick Griffiths as Major Metcalf added a lot to the experience. His performance came across as very natural and effortless. The words are all in the script, but Griffiths made them sound hilarious and off the cuff.
Paul Hilliar as Sergeant Trotter
Paul Hilliar as Sergeant Trotter has about 40% of the airtime, so the performance rests on his shoulders. In my opinion, he was the perfect cast. Never too in your face, but rather intense and a great stage presence. Definitely one to watch out for.
So who’s dunnit?
Can’t tell you, sorry.
Ellie & I had a marvellous evening. 5 out of 5 in our book. We’ll almost certainly be back again soon with visiting friends.
Looking for more stage reviews? Check out our posts about Obsession at the Barbican, Wish List at the Royal Court, or Art at the Old Vic. We’ve also blogged about Frieze London 2021, about our Sahara desert trip, our trip to a Russian coal mine near the North Pole (Spitsbergen), our one-day stays in Lisbon and Dubai.