The Mousetrap: Secret of the record-breaking play

IT’S been keeping its secret now for 60 years, relying apparently on the sheer goodwill of those in the know not to spoil it for others.

Steven France (Christopher Wren) in the UK tour of The Mousetrap. Photo by Helen Maybanks

IT’S been keeping its secret now for 60 years, relying apparently on the sheer goodwill of those in the know not to spoil it for others.

The Mousetrap, the world’s longest-running play whose London staging night after night has become the stuff of legends, famously has a twist at its end that audiences are politely requested not to reveal so that future theatre-goers can also enjoy the surprise.

OK, so in these internet-savvy days it would be a mini miracle – or at least a mystery worthy of its author Agatha Christie – if you could not discover it at the click of your computer mouse.

But short of a Google search, the “big reveal” has certainly eluded me – though not for much longer as the murder mystery is on its first national tour – in celebration of its Diamond Jubilee – which includes three North East dates.

The first is at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle where it will run from February 11-16 with tickets apparently having sold well from the off, followed by runs at Darlington and Sunderland later in the year.

So, how is it that a play which surely by now is a dusty period piece remains so popular that hordes of tourists include it on their to-do list alongside the top sights in the capital, where it has been running as long as the Queen (who attended its Golden Jubilee performance 10 years ago) has been on the throne?

Well, the enduring popularity of its author Agatha Christie, who died in 1976 at the age of 85, is a part of the fabric of our society. You have only to flick through the TV channels to find a nightly episode featuring one or other of her famous detective creations: Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple.

They’re also a staple of the Christmas viewing schedule, their restoring of good over evil in the drawing room denouements providing comfort food in today’s uncertain times.

The Mousetrap is typical Christie fare: a murder-mystery classic with an intricate plot, set in a snowed-in manor house (converted to a guesthouse) where police set a trap for a killer.

Its origins are linked to another queen: Queen Mary who had apparently asked for a piece by Christie, a novelist and playwright whose stories she liked, to be included in a special evening of radio programmes in 1947 to mark her 80th birthday.

Christie came up with a story based on a real-life case from two years earlier of a 12-year-old boy who died in foster care and the play made its radio debut that year under the title Three Blind Mice.

Soon afterwards, the author saw the potential in developing the half-hour piece into a full theatre play but, as its original title clashed with that of another already in existence, she changed its title. It was apparently her son-in-law who suggested The Mousetrap, which comes from Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet when the Prince offers it as the name of the play-within-the-play which draws parallels with his father’s murder

(Incidentally Shakespeare’s works and The Bible are believed to be the only books to outsell Christie’s billions of copies across the world).

The Mousetrap made its debut at The Ambassadors Theatre in London in 1952 (where it ran for 21 years before moving – while not missing a performance – to nearby St Martin’s Theatre) with Richard Attenborough and his wife Sheila Sim in lead roles.

On its 50th anniversary night, Lord Attenborough gave the same curtain speech he did then, the one that famously asks the audience: “Now you have seen The Mousetrap, you are our partners in crime and we ask you to preserve the tradition by keeping the secret of whodunit locked in your hearts”.

When you’re asked as nicely as that, who’s going to be the grouch to ruin the fun?

Hundreds of actors have since followed in Attenborough’s footsteps, with one of them (David Raven) adding to The Mousetrap’s record book, being named “most durable actor” for his 4,575 performances of the character Major Metcalf, while an actress, Nancy Seabrooke, clocked up a record-breaking 15 years as an understudy.

The play itself has, since 1958, held the record for longest-running show in the history of British theatre. In November it marked its 25,000th performance.

No film adaptation will ever be allowed unless the West End production has been closed for at least six months – so don’t hold you breath, as the play continues to run at St Martin’s Theatre.

In 2000 the set there was replaced for the first time, although with a design identical to the original – again without missing a performance.

As part of the 60-week Silver Jubilee tour, which will continue throughout the UK until 2014, 60 productions of it will also be licensed around the world, so that it will have been seen in every continent.

This is, officially, the first time the show has toured but the Theatre Royal in Newcastle has heard from an audience member that the play was actually there in 1952. The likelihood is that this was a pre-West End preview, to test the audience response before its official London opening, so this tour is really the first time the play has left the West End.

And as if to underline the message that The Mousetrap connects with audiences today, the cast heading north will include several TV faces who are familiar to us from the soap that prides itself on gritty realism, EastEnders.

Fans will spot Elizabeth Power, Steven France, Jemma Walker and Clare Wilkie, who have all been in the soap, while others will know Karl Howman (remember Brush Strokes?); Graham Seed, who’s best known from The Archers; Bob Saul and Bruno Langley.

They’ll be helping to spill the beans so this is your chance to become one of those to discover The Mousetrap twist.

I, for one, will be keeping it secret.

The Mousetrap comes to the Theatre Royal, Newcastle, from February 11-16. Visit www.theatreroyal.co.uk  or call 08448 112 121. It can be seen at Darlington Civic Theatre from June 10 to 15 (visit www.darlington.gov.uk/Leisure/arts or call 01325 486 555) and Sunderland Empire from October 15 to 19 (www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland or 0844 871 3022).

 

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