Can Agatha Christie's most famous play enthral modern audiences outside of the West End?
It only took 60 years, but for its diamond anniversary The Mousetrap has finally embarked on its first ever UK tour. It stopped en route in Belfast for only six days, and perhaps unsurprisingly each of the 12 performances (matinee and evening) at the Grand Opera House were sold out.
A little background: In 1952, a new play by Agatha Christie – aka the Queen of Crime – premiered in the West End. It was no farce, no frivolous musical, no Shakespearean tragedy. Rather, it was a baffling murder mystery, set (like many of Christie's best novels) in a closed house with only a limited number of suspects (only eight characters feature throughout).
Fast forward 60 years – and a staggering 24,500 performances – and only the actors have changed.
Here Bruno Langley and Jemma Walker take on the central roles of Giles and Mollie Ralston, the newlywed owners of the guest house in which the action takes place. After some initial stiffness, both relax into their roles, embodying both the honeymoon phase of marriage and, later, a mistrust and suspicion of those around them.
Steven France, meanwhile, takes on the role of Christopher Wren, and completely overacts, but deliberately so – and with hilarious consequences. Wren is one of the campest creations in theatre, and France obviously enjoys every moment, every line, every red herring.
Jan Waters and Clare Wilkie play, respectively, Mrs Boyle and Miss Casewell. And both are extremely natural, giving the sometimes anachronistic phraseology a modern credulity, while keeping their particular secrets well buried.
Director Ian Watt-Smith increases the audiences’ sense of claustrophobia by concentrating the action in a single room. Doors, windows and stairs all create the illusion of space, and the soft, well-placed lighting adds to the sense of introspection.
Smith plays it safe with no daring stage directions, lighting cues or sound effects, but The Mousetrap is such a well-oiled machine after 60 years that it does not need any. This is a period piece played as such, with 1950s customes and language.
Some might think look down upon Agatha Christie novels as stuffy and formulaic, which invariably they are. Yet there is a reason that Christie remains the queen of crime fiction – her dramatic twists and turns, her deft characterisation, her enduring fondness for the reader (or the audience) give her stories an authenticity and a punch that is so often lacking in other examples of the genre.
The Mousetrap features all of the above, and thoroughly deserves its place in the annals of theatrical history as one of the very best suspense thrillers ever written.