CLEVERLY-WROUGHT WHODUNIT HANDSOMELY DELIVERED WHILE MYSTERY ABIDES
by Agatha Christie
Produced in New Zealand by Michael Coppel, Louise Withers and Linda Bewick in association with Adrian Barnes and by arrangement with Mousetrap Productions Ltd London
at St James Theatre, Wellington
From 15 Nov 2012 to 24 Nov 2012
Reviewed by John Smythe, 17 Nov 2012
The title comes from the name Hamlet chose for the play he and his travelling player mates staged to “catch the conscience of the King”. “'Tis a knavish piece of work,” he tells Claudius: “but what o' that? Your majesty and we that have free souls, it touches us not: let the galled jade wince, our withers are unwrung.” I love that line!
Originally a half-hour radio play, commissioned in 1947 by the BBC as part of a special light entertainment programme to honour Queen Mary (the king's mother) on her 80th birthday, because she had requested an Agatha Christie play, it was called Three Blind Mice. But that title had been taken by a 1938 movie, hence the name change – although Christie stipulated her play may not be adapted for the screen until its stage season was over.
She had donated her 100 guinea fee from the BBC to the Southport Infirmary Children's Toy Fund and gifted the rights to the stage play to her grandson on his ninth birthday before what she hoped would be “a nice little run” commenced, on 25 November 1952, so despite its record-breaking run (about to hit 60 years not out, hence the Diamond anniversary celebrations with 60 productions worldwide this year), it never paid her a personal penny.
I must confess that during my two visits to London, The Mousetrap at St Martin's Theatre (to which it had transferred from The Ambassadors without missing a performance) was never on my list of ‘must sees'. Yet having performed in three productions of Shakespeare's Hamlet and participated in annual rehearsed-reading presentations of Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound throughout this century, my interest in seeing it has increased.
It was Stoppard's experiences as a theatre critic in Bristol that inspired him to write his absurdist parody of Agatha Christie's ‘surprise hit' whodunit, some 16 years after it had opened. Stoppard satirises Christie, the genre, thespians and the nefarious activities and fantasies of critics, with jealousies as the prime motivators for various crimes. I mention it, and Hamlet, here because I cannot pretend that my first encounter with The Mousetrap is not affected by knowing them well.
The manor house in a remote location isolated by bad weather, radio broadcasts reporting a murder and describing a suspect on the loose, a single telephone line that gets cut, a policeman braving the storm to prevent further murders and the astonishing twist at the end are all elements Stoppard recycled. But the motivator in The Mousetrap is (as with Hamlet) revenge.
The reason Monkswell Manor is considered a target is that it is one of two addresses in a notebook found at the London crime scene. The now-deceased Mrs Maureen Lyon (nee Stanning) had been the cruel foster-parent of three children given into her abusive care at nearby Longridge Farm, where one boy died. The whereabouts of his brother and sister, now young adults, are unknown; their birth mother is dead and their father joined the army. “Three Blind Mice” was also written on the notebook, below the addresses …
A child's voice singing the nursery rhyme opens the play and it is variously played with one finger in the drawing room (off), or whistled in the dining room (off), throughout the play. At times characters declare they have been blind to some truth or other.
The titular mice, then, are the potential victims of someone intent on punishing the adults who had been so blind to the plight of the defenceless children. So amid the eight characters who become stranded at Monkswell Manor, there is almost certainly a vengeful murderer who has two further victims marked down. “'Tis a knavish piece of work” indeed.
Mollie Ralston has inherited the manor from an aunt, and rather than sell it she and her husband of one year, Giles, are opening it as a guest house. It turns out they wed just three weeks after they met and know very little about each other.
The photo above suggests Mollie is the mouse in Giles' trap but she exudes post-war grit and determination alongside her natural compassion while Giles seems uptight, nervous and somewhat out of his depth as ‘mine host'. Christy Sullivan and Gus Murray acquit themselves crisply in these roles as they vacillate between young love and fear of the unknown; fear of their task, their guests and eventaually of each other.
Just four single guests have booked in as inaugural customers. Why? Are any of them who they say they are and if so, what else about their pasts may prove germane to the unfolding mystery? Who are the ‘galled jades' with reasons to wince?
Christopher Wren – named, he says, after the great architect whose vocation he has adopted – is a manic young man who operates mostly at the high extremity, adoring the architecture, the furnishings and the opportunity to get into the kitchen and cook. Played with energetic ebullience by Travis Cotton, and sporting the dank long locks of a poet, he could be an escapee from Wilde or Coward.
The judgemental and constantly critical Mrs Boyle, who successfully alienates everyone else, is emphatically nailed by Linda Cropper. The enigmatic Major Metcalf, played with aplomb by Nicholas Hope, makes himself useful while showing an inordinate interest in the basement.
An ectomorphic Jacinta John intrigues as the ‘mannish' and prickly Miss Leslie Casswell, whose unhappy childhood haunts her still despite her attempts to escape and/or ignore it. She could snap into an art deco frame at any moment.
The unexpected guest who didn't book but whose Rolls Royce has rolled in a snow drift is the eccentric Mr Paravicini. Robert Alexander has a ball in this role, gleefully teetering on the balance of credibility vis-à-vis his accent and age as he (Paravicini) treats it all as a game. But why does he not want his luggage retrieved from his car?
In the nick of time, before the snow storm closes them in, Detective-Sergeant Trotter arrives on skis, his mission: to protect the innocent and apprehend the guilty. Justin Smith is very credible as the somewhat obsessive journeyman copper who has worked his way up through diligence and commitment.
Does the re-enactment scene, where everyone is asked to recreate the actions of another following the second murder, right under their noses, count as his device to ‘catch the conscience' of the perpetrator? Perhaps.
Overall the actors shout a lot, as if they've been told the St James has a bad acoustic, despite the wooden-panelled ‘sound-shell' quality of Linda Bewick's excellent set (lit by Matt Cox). Yet despite their volume, somewhat enhanced by microphones we suspect, enunciation of consonants is an issue at times – as corroborated by others I canvassed who sat in different parts of the theatre.
That said, as directed by Gary Young, the top-flight Australian cast delivers this best-known and cleverly-wrought whodunit handsomely, abetted by Suzy Strout's superb costume and hair designs.
As to why this play is the longest running one ever: that remains the abiding mystery. But at a time when child abuse and murder in the real world are almost daily occurrences, it does touch on timeless and universal themes.
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See also reviews by:
Ewen Coleman (The Dominion Post);
Lynn Freeman (Capital Times);