The world’s longest-running stage production, now in its 52nd year but freshened-up with an annual change of cast, owes its provenance to the late Queen Mary who demanded ‘an Agatha Christie play’ to celebrate her 80th birthday.
BBC radio obliged with a 30-minute thriller entitled Three Blind Mice, which eventually became The Mousetrap, stretched to fill two hours on the stage and attracting hundreds of tourists and out-of-towners every week as part of the London experience.
The setting is the Great Hall of Monkswell Manor in deepest Berkshire, owing its Jacobethan decor to the Inigo Jones revival, soon to be cut off from the world by fast falling snow. The time is ‘Agatha Christie time’ as the programme puts it, corned beef is on the menu and there are no mobile phones or television.
Before the curtain rises a shot, a scream and a radio announcer reveal that a murder has been committed in Paddington. Clues carelessly discarded now point to the Manor as the killer’s next stopping place in pursuit of two more victims of vengeance. But who are they?
In the long opening scene guests arrive, shaking snow from their hats and winter coats, happily unaware that they and the jolly young proprietors (Sian Howard and Tim Faulkner) will each soon fall under deepest suspicion of guilt and the threat of sudden death. Luckily a sergeant from the county constabulary has been despatched on skis to protect the guests and do his best to uncover the villain. But he proves unable to prevent further crimes being committed
The present cast signed on at the November anniversary, including Diana Van Proosdy, a Mousetrap veteran who has twice played the younger Miss Casewell and now reappears as the disapproving Mrs Boyle. Andrew Swift lollops about in a ghastly jumper as the camp Christopher Wren (if that really is his name), an architect (if that really is his profession). Philip Lowrie keeps a low profile as the gallant Major Metcalf but what has he been doing in the cellar?
In the two more striking performances Kenneth Gilbert plays the highly suspicious Mr Paravicini, a chuckling continental who admits he has things that need to be done, while Clarissa Young’s Casewell is a good deal less mannish than others before her, in fact chic and beautiful in her fashionable black fedora.
Completing the cast is Ward Parry’s Sergeant Trotter, a resourceful young Berkshire bobby, a muscular example of the strong arm of the law, light on his feet and determined to get his man.
Those familiar with the Christie canon will find it easy to spot the murderer among this roll-call but this is not the only point of seeing the production. This is a beautifully preserved example of a country house murder mystery, a throwback to theatregoing in the thirties (minus the matinee tea-trays). And should a disgruntled cab-driver tell you whodunnit there are several other moments of suspense and surprise in store to keep you guessing.
The St Martin’s is an exquisite gem of a theatre, worth a visit in its own right, an intimate auditorium lined with Italian mahogany, its proscenium arch topped with an elegant cartouche of its owner’s coat of arms. This comfortable, welcoming venue employs discreetly attentive staff, not pushy with the merchandise, all of which, plus the production’s historic credentials, makes this an entertaining night out