trotter Paravicini and Caewell

Lewis Collier as the sking Sgt Trotter, Gregory Cox as the flamboyant Mr Paravicini and Amy Downham as Miss Casewell. Pictures: Liza Maria Dawson

The Mousetrap

The New Alexandra Theatre

****

IN a year’s time Agatha Christie’s celebrated murder mystery will have completed 65 year’s continuous service; could it be the first play in the world to be entitled to a pension?

There is not even a close second in the longest running play stakes with The Mousetrap clocking up more than 26,500 performances. Les Misérables is next in London with almost 13,000 while The Phantom of the Opera tops the Broadway list with just over 12,000 – even together they don’t beat the old stager.

In its home in St Martin’s Theatre in the West End The Mousetrap has become as much a tourist attraction as play – something to tick off on any visit to the capital along with the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace.

And perhaps that is part of its longevity because if one is honest it is not even Christie’s best play, she expected it to run for no more than eight months when it opened in 1952, after a pre-West End tour which was completed, incidentally, at the Alex. So why it has taken on a life of its own is a mystery which would make a rich man of any producer who could solve it.

But run and run and run it did with the Umajor, Wren and MollieK tour to celebrate its 60th anniversary still on the road and playing to more than respectable houses. Yet despite running in London since 1952, producer Sir Stephen Waley-Cohen was being realistic in 2012 when he remarked that it had only been seen by around 10 million people – which seems a lot but, in reality, is only the same as a single episode of a decent soap or Downton Abbey. So there are still 55 million or so people to go at.

Tony Boncza as the Major, Oliver Gully as Wren and Anna Andresen as Mollie

As a play it depends a little on the audience; if they are up for it as the audience on Press night were, and the cast are treating it as a modern play set in the 1950s, then it works well, building up the tension with a nice pace, and the creaks and wheezes of its age are well hidden.

We open with a radio announcer reading the news of the murder of a woman called Maureen Lyon in London and then come all the elements Christie loved to employ with characters we know appear as one thing but we know must be another. Everything seems logical but somehow never quite adds up, not that you can ever fully solve the mystery yourself, Christie keeps her cards close to her chest until the big reveal at the end.

Thus we have Anna Andresen as Mollie Ralston and her husband Giles played by Nick Barclay. A young couple who have turned rambling Monkswell Manor in Berkshire into a guest house and are now awaiting their first guests as a blizzard blows outside. They are a loving couple, or so it seems, but there are tensions under the surface and when one of the guests gets murdered, the tensions and suspicions rise into the open in a nicely measured performance from the pair.

The guest who doesn’t make it past the first act is Mrs Boyle, a miserable, humourless, complaining old biddy played with an unlikeable air by Sarah Whitlock. The Ralstons or indeed any of the guests could have done her in as a favour to everyone else in the house but we discover her demise is because she is connected to a child abuse case many years ago when one of three siblings died of neglect near the manor. Also connected was Maureen Lyon, remember her? A connection revealed by Sgt Trotter from the local constabulary who has skied over to protect owners and guests from a homicidal manic . . . and, as everyone is by now snowed in, the killer must be someone in the house.

Trotter, played by Lewis Collier, is very intense, dashes around a lot and is a bit of a bully when it comes to questioning as he desperately seems to be trying to prevent a third murder, one more occupant set to be done in by another in the snowbound house. Worse still, not only is everyone snowbound but the phones lines have been cut – isolation is complete.

They are trapped with a killer who might be perhaps Christopher Wren, young, a touch mad, architect . . . or is he . . .and is that his real name? Wren, or possibly not, is played as a sort of intelligent Frank Spencer on speed by Oliver Gully in a most entertaining performance. Nick Barclay as Giles

Or it could be the quiet and rather unfriendly Miss Casewell played by Amy Downham who dresses in rather manly clothes and lives in Majorca, only being back in Britain to complete some personal business – murder perhaps? – and is at Monkswell for some peace and quiet.

Nick Barclay as Giles

Then we have the avuncular Major Metcalf, played by Tony Boncza, retired, looking for the simple life, and looking as if a whiskey and soda and Daily Telegraph in front of the fire would be just the ticket. Yet ex-army, could he have killing skills?

And finally we have the old Christie standby, the mysterious foreigner – foreign being another word for suspicious in Christie’s world – who turns up unexpectedly in the shape of MrParavicini, whose Rolls Royce has crashed in a snow drift close by the entrance to the manor – coincidence or what! Gregory Cox gives him a flamboyant air with arms a waving and gestures all the way in a larger than life performance, with hints of sinister not far away. We never did find out why he was passing or where he was going.

There are a few tweaks to the script here and there with modern asides and comment, as well as looks and gestures to add humour to proceedings which move along at a pleasing pace thanks to director Ian Watt-Smith.

The play may be in its dotage and 1950s country house murder mysteries long out of fashion but he has given it a freshness and modern feel to keep it appearing young and spritely, all helped by a splendid setting. The set is simply gorgeous, a solid, substantial 1950’s country house to a T and the falling snow seen through the window for most of the first act was a nice authentic touch.

If you enjoy a good murder mystery then this is a well-acted, very elegant example and you will be seeing a piece of theatrical history at the same time. As usual the audience are sworn to secrecy – no doubt upon pain of death – so if you want to know whodunit you will have to do what people did 64 years ago this month, and go to the Alex to find out. To 05-11-16

Roger Clarke

31-10-16 

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