The curtain rose on the first London performance of “The Mousetrap” by Agatha Christie on 25 November 1952 at the Ambassadors Theatre and today holds the record as the longest continuous run of any show in the world.
To mark the 60th anniversary, a new production is on tour for the first time visiting sixty theatres around the UK.
The perennially popular Miss Marple and Poirot series pepper the TV schedules, Christie's novels, translated into numerous languages, outsell Shakespeare and the Bible and her other plays are frequently staged.
But what is Agatha Christie’s enduring appeal for such old fashioned murder mysteries?
The main clue to her extraordinary success lies in masterly-crafted, simply-narrated whodunits, a complex plot, one, two or more murder victims, a myriad of intriguing characters, numerous suspects, a few red herrings with a dramatic twist at the end.
“The Mousetrap” was adapted from a radio play entitled Three Little Pigs, broadcast in 1947 as a personal request of Queen Mary to mark her 80th birthday. The story was inspired by a true story - the death of a boy and ill-treatment of his siblings by foster parents.
The setting for the stage play is Monkswell Manor Guest House which has only recently opened for business by a young couple, Giles and Mollie Ralston. It’s the early 1950s with food rationing still in place and domestic staff difficult to find so they will have to manage the hotel themselves.
As Mollie awaits their first guests, she is listening to the News on the radio. Mrs Maureen Lyon has been found murdered in her home, 24 Culver Street, Paddington and Scotland Yard Police are looking for a man dressed in a dark overcoat, light coloured scarf and a soft hat. We then learn of wintry weather conditions with the forecast of heavy snow.
Giles then arrives home wearing exactly the same clothes as the murder suspect. This prompts a moment of laughter around the audience, before we settle back to play our part as amateur sleuths.
Four guests gradually arrive at the house: Christopher, an eccentric young man, the rather pompous Mrs Boyle, the cheerfully calm Major Metcalf, and the quietly reserved Miss Casewell.
Then an unexpected visitor arrives, Mr Paravicini whose Rolls Royce has apparently broken down nearby, requesting to stay the night.
The attractive set design is like the layout of the Country House in the Cluedo board game, featuring a well furnished, wood panelled lounge, stairs up to bedrooms, doors leading to the library, dining room, kitchen and cellar. Flurries of snow outside the window, creepy music and creaking doors evoke the atmosphere of the cold dark night and this isolated house full of strangers.
Then a Scotland Yard Detective suddenly arrives to investigate the connection between Monkswell Manor and the Paddington murder. As he questions all the guests, everyone in the house is warned that their life may be in danger: he believes one of them may be the murderer.
The excellent cast (with a few well known names from TV drama and soap operas), embraces each of their colourful characters with subtle style, accent and mannerism of the period, as well as adding a menacing soupcon of secrecy, as if not quite revealing who they really are.
The King’s Theatre was packed up to the balcony and the boxes: not a sound was heard as we became quietly gripped by the quaint nostalgia and “comforting” pleasure of a good old murder mystery. And of course the brilliant twist in the plot at the end surprises us all.
Thriller writer, P. D. James once criticised the Queen of Crime for her "cardboard cut-out" characters. Agatha Christie responded that she described herself as an entertainer and not a literary writer.
The legendary success of “The Mousetrap” just proves what classic entertainment this play is, still drawing a huge audience of all ages, sixty years later.
29 October to 3 November, 2012.
On tour throughout UK and Ireland until 2013.
£11.50 - £29.50