First things first, you’ll find no plot spoilers in this review of the 70th anniversary touring production of Agatha Christie’s legendary murder mystery, The Mousetrap. Nor will you find any hints or allusions as to any guilty party, nor even any red herrings, for I, like everyone else who has seen this genre-defining murder mystery, have been sworn to secrecy.
Well, not sworn to secrecy, not exactly, but the audience is politely asked by a member of the cast at the curtain call not to give away the end of the play, a tradition that has turned a staggering 10 million plus theatregoers into willing accomplices to murder most foul.
Or rather, judging by the reaction of the audience at Manchester’s Opera House, murder most fabulous. You see, there’s a reason why The Mousetrap, the longest running play in history, is so incredibly successful, and that reason is that it’s really rather good. Agatha Christie, the universally acknowledged Queen of Crime – and the world’s bestselling novelist of all time – constructed a clever and thoughtful plot which, despite drawing on some dark very themes, also manages to be genuinely funny.
If the conventions followed in the play seem familiar it’s because they’ve been copied (but never bettered) by legions of crime writers since Agatha pioneered them. In the play, seven strangers find themselves snowed in at Monkswell Manor, a remote countryside guesthouse. Upon the arrival of a police sergeant the guests are horrified to discover that a killer may be in their midst, and one by one their secrets start to tumble out into the open.
The play is something of a microcosm of some of the norms and values of 1950s Britain, which had held sway for many years but, by 1952, the year in which the play is set, were already beginning to be challenged and would shortly become subject to rapid social change. This imparts the feeling that it isn’t just a murderer’s victims who are passing away.
The first act sees the cast assemble (in an unusually engaging set), a series of British archetypes who proceed to amuse and abuse each other while gradually revealing signs of deeper, darker sides to their characters. Eliot Clay shines in his role as the frenetic Christopher Wren, a mischievous misfit, and Gwyneth Strong’s gloriously acerbic portrayal of the traditional British battleaxe, Mrs Boyle, is a joy to watch.
Act two sees the pace quicken and the tension rise considerably. Essie Barrow plays the enigmatic but brittle Miss Carswell with a compelling mix of empathy and distance, and Nicolas Maude’s performance of Major Metcalf is note-perfect. Joseph Reed builds his character, the detective, in a compelling performance, and Joelle Dyson and Laurence Pears have real chemistry as the Ralstons.
And then we come to Mr Paravicini, played by John Altman, he of Nick Cotton fame in EastEnders…boo, hiss! With flawless comic timing, Altman raised many a laugh from the audience and he carried off his portrayal of the outsider figure, Mr Paravicini, with a delightfully sinister joviality.
It’s a staggering 70 years since The Mousetrap was first performed in the Theatre Royal Nottingham and, Covid shutdown aside, it has run continuously in London’s West End ever since. Now audiences outside the capital can enjoy it in 70 venues across the UK and Ireland, and I for one recommend that they do.
The Mousetrap runs at Manchester’s Opera House until December 3, 2022. Information on booking can be found on the tour’s official website.