Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 26 November Words by Melissa Blease
At the end of every performance of English murder mystery queen Agatha Christie’s legendary (and quintessentially English) murder mystery masterpiece The Mousetrap, the character revealed to be the killer steps forward and tells the audience to “keep the secret of whodunnit locked in your heart.”
By and large, audience members who have attended some 28,500+ performances of The Mousetrap across the globe have upheld the tradition (apart from the font-of-all-knowledge killjoy that is Wikipedia; those who haven’t seen the play and don’t want to know the ending have been warned).
But if you don’t know which character within the group of seven strangers snowed in at a stately English country guest house is the homicidal maniac, will you work it out for yourself before the denouement? That depends on your penchant for listening carefully, watching closely… and thinking as sharply as Christie herself thought.
It’s up to newbie guest house hosts Giles and Mollie Ralston to set the nervous tension mode to ‘high’ before the drama itself kicks in and Laurence Pears and Joelle Dyson do a grand job of getting us started, faffing around plumping cushions, panicking over menus, food supplies and the impending snow storm, stoking fires, constantly checking and re-checking the diary and teetering on the edge of bickering… but never mentioning the fact that a news bulletin regarding a murder in nearby London and the ensuing police search for a suspect wearing a dark overcoat, pale scarf and a felt hat is dominating the wireless airwaves.
Whodunnit? Agatha Christie, time and time again
When the guests start to arrive, the apprehension amps up to maximum even though we’re rather predictably transported straight to Cluedo-character territory, with the delightfully camp, hyperactive young architect Christopher Wren (an exceptionally slick performance from understudy Jack Elliot in the performance we saw), critical curmudgeon Mrs Boyle (Gwyneth Strong), amiable but detached ex-military man Major Metcalf (Todd Carty), the elegantly aloof Miss Casewell (Essie Barrow), exotic unexpected stranger Mr Paravicini (John Altman) and, eventually, enthusiastic young Detective Sgt. Trotter (Joseph Reed) all working in artfully smooth partnership to offer a classic lineup of sinister suspects, all of whom arrive wearing – yup, you got it! – a dark overcoat, pale scarf and felt hat.
What with the snow building up outside, the phone lines mysteriously cut and all the action taking place in just one of Monkswell Manor’s rooms (fans of 1950s furnishing and fashions in particular will enjoy the richly detailed set and costumes), a bonus edge of claustrophobia thickens the already heady air of suspense while lashings of sharp asides and quick-fire witticisms further attest to Christie’s predilection for aiming to amuse audiences while keeping them guessing.
It could be said that the thrill of that guessing game chase slightly tails off during the second half, when the party’s possible motivations become slightly convoluted and the pace drops when it should be speeding up. Or perhaps any fleeting impatience with the plot has more to do with the current, thoroughly modern take on the murder mystery genre itself? These days, if contemporary audiences aren’t lauding lazy murder mystery spoofs that ultimately sneer at the original productions they claim to be paying homage to, they’re applauding Hollywood superstars for their harrowing portrayals of real-life serial killers. The Mousetrap, meanwhile – celebrating its 70th birthday while here in Bath – chills us out and cosies up us in impeccably-crafted, traditionally escapist, intelligent production style that’s stood the test of time for multiple very good reasons. Whodunnit? Agatha Christie, time and time again.