New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 4th February, 2013
Agatha Christie’s most famous play has been running in the West End for 60 years, and is still going strong. Now, in celebration of this anniversary, comes this touring production, saving us all the rail fare to London.
The first murder happens before the curtain goes up and straightaway we are plunged into the mystery. The description given by the police could fit most of the characters that subsequently appear at Monkswell Manor Guest House, a fledgling business venture run by young married couple Giles and Mollie Ralston. The usual suspects assemble: the reactionary old frump (Elizabeth Power), the madcap twit (Steven France), the retired military man (Graham Seed), the dodgy foreigner (Karl Howman), and the forthright young lady (Clare Wilkie).
As they become snowed in, cut off in this rambling country house, the play takes on an air of Cluedo crossed with Big Brother, as the guests annoy each other and argue. The arrival of a detective on skis cranks up the tensions between them, and the audience eagerly awaits the next victim and we speculate over the identity of the killer.
This is standard Christie fare. There is always something delicious about the murder mystery in a big house and this production conveys that atmosphere very well, thanks to a sturdy and evocative set and direction by Ian Watt-Smith. The script is from a time when foreigners were immediately suspect – the dodgiest thing about Karl Howman’s Mr Paravicini is his accent. And gay men were considered mentally deficient – Steven France’s Christopher Wren is as camp as cupcakes, prancing around like Louie Spence and laughing like the Joker. Christie lays in the red herrings with a trowel – you know the denouement is going to be cleverer and more surprising than you first surmise…
Having said that, when the killer is revealed, the loose ends are tied up rather superficially and the action dribbles to a close. It’s a bit convenient, I found, and some moments in the second act could do with picking up the pace, but on the whole I found this is a quality production that brings life and energy to a creaky old plot in a creaky old house.
Jemma Walker carries the emotional weight of the piece as young Mrs Ralston and a lot of the energy comes from Bob Saul’s performance as the quirky detective. Graham Seed is in his element in this kind of thing as the dignified retired Major, and Elizabeth Power is delightful as the curmudgeonly old trout. Bruno Langley keeps us guessing as young Mr Ralston in an effective turn as curmudgeon-in-waiting, and Clare Wilkie as Miss Casewell, in male attire, adds intrigue. Even with the more exaggerated character types, you can’t help wondering what they might be up to. I think this is perhaps at the heart of the play’s longevity: you want to find out more and try to beat the characters to the killer’s unmasking.
Definitely worth seeing, The Mousetrap is a slice of British culture, a helping of nostalgia for a bygone age that has an undercurrent of human nature that is still recognisable in society today – said he being careful not to give anything away.
Catch it if you can!