The world's longest-running play, The Mousetrap, opened at the Ambassadors Theatre, London on 25 November 1952, and has been performed almost 29,000 times and seen by 10 million people. But the murder mystery originally began in 1947 when the BBC asked Agatha Christie to write a radio play as an 80th birthday present for Queen Mary. Three Blind Mice was based on the recent court case of Mr and Mrs Gough found guilty for the manslaughter of their foster son and cruelty of his two brothers. Adapting it for the stage, it was renamed ‘The Mousetrap,’ after the play featured in Hamlet.
The action takes place in 1952 at Monkswell Manor with its wood panelled Hall, stained glass window, chintz sofa and arm chairs around the log fire. With suitable period music, we hear a news report on the wireless about the murder of Maureen Lyon in Paddington, London, ‘ the police are anxious to interview a man wearing a dark overcoat, light scarf and a soft felt hat.’
Mollie and Giles Ralston have opened their home as a small hotel and on this cold winter’s day are awaiting their guests: Christopher Wren, a rather excitable young man, Mrs Boyle, primly dressed in a tweed skirt, the fashionable, 20s-something Miss Casewell and the jovial Major Metcalf. All the men are wearing a coat, scarf and hat, which, of course, raises a laugh. Then an unexpected visitor, Mr. Paravicini who says he has crashed his Rolls Royce in a snowdrift and requires to stay the night as in the blizzard ‘they are cut off from civilisation … nobody and no-one but ourselves.’
The tension swiftly rises when Detective Sergeant Trotter arrives, on cross country skis, to investigate the link between the death of Mrs Lyon and Monkswell Manor. He believes the murderer may already be there so that everyone is a suspect as the questioning begins.
Agatha Christie applied the same knack as her crime novels to the theatre: an intellectually demanding story, strong characters and a swift pace, acts and scenes like chapters, closing at the right moment. With a medical background, her observation of human nature and psychological insight was profound, understanding the complex motives for murder on themes such as greed, hate, revenge and redemption.
And so we are presented with an array of puzzling clues – a hidden bus ticket and missing skis - as we try to assess the colourful characters: Mollie and Giles are clearly flustered by inviting complete strangers into their home; Major Metcalf’s military manner is amusingly portrayed by Todd Carty, (like the bumbling Rowley Birkin, QC in The Fast Show); the pompous Mrs Boyle is astounded that there are no servants; Christopher, (a comical, camp performance by Elliot Clay), hops around with childlike energy, “I like murder” he screams, sharing his gruesome interest with Miss Casewell; and the theatrical antics of Paravicini, a foreigner with his flamboyant moustache, described by Christie as ‘ a taller edition of Poirot who may give the wrong impression to the audience.’
From the opening scene, the haunting tune of ‘Three Blind Mice,’ creates a menacing atmospheric mood throughout, especially when Mollie recites the nursery rhyme:
Three blind mice, three blind mice …They all ran after the farmer's wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife ..
The layout of the Manor is just like a Cluedo board game – Hall, Drawing room, Dining room and stairs to the bedrooms, with a good deal of rushing in and out of doors and finding a secret passageway to the kitchen. There are many other farcical moments such as the Detective, wildly swinging his skis so that Giles has to quickly duck out the way.
As Agatha wrote in her Autobiography, (1977) on the extraordinary success of The Mousetrap: ‘Young people enjoy it, elderly people enjoy it. I think, without being conceited or overly modest, a light play with both humour and thriller appeal, it is well constructed, so that you want to know what happens next. And you can’t quite see where the next few minutes might lead’.
Now 70 years on, the audience, young and old, was utterly enthralled by the ingenious plot, chilling suspense and light-hearted comical moments. As Christopher says with gleeful enthusiasm, when the murder interrogation begins, it’s all ‘deliciously macabre!.’
Tuesday 25 – Saturday 29 April 2023
Evening Tue – Sat: 7.30pm; Matinee Wed & Sat: 2.30pm.
Ticket prices: from £13
Edinburgh Playhouse website: https://is.gd/KeKzR7
UK tour: https://www.mousetrapontour.co.uk/