Visit London, But Avoid This Trap
The play is set in a fantasy world of mock-tudor wood-paneling, an England that I’ve never seen. Each of the eight actors in it have to sign up for a minimum of 47 weeks. One says that during quiet performances you can hear the play creak. That’s hardly surprising; ‘The Mousetrap’ opened in the West End of London in 1952, and has been running continuously since then. It has by far the longest initial run of any play in history, with its 25,000th performance taking place on 18 November 2012. There’s a sign in the foyer of the St Martins Theatre that tells you what number performance this is. Tourists are photographed next to it. The St Martins is a beautiful theatre, but most of us never get to see inside it.
Agatha Christie thought the play would last eight months, tops. The opening night critics were less than kind, calling it crude and cliched. It began life as a short radio play broadcast on 30 May 1947 called ‘Three Blind Mice’, and had its origins in the real-life case of the death of a boy, Dennis O’Neill, who died while in the foster-care farmer and his wife in 1945. Christie asked that the story not be published as long as it ran as a play. It has still not been published in Great Britain but has appeared in the US, in the 1950 collection ‘Three Blind Mice and other stories’. There’s one unacknowledged film version, made in India.
Christie gave the rights to her grandson as a birthday present. One of the original stars, Richard Attenborough, invested in it, and eventually ended up partially financing his film ‘Gandhi’ with the proceeds. In the UK, only one further production could be performed annually and no film could be produced until it had been closed for at least six months. One actor has been with the play for the whole of its run – ‘Please Sir’s Derek Guyler, whose voice you hear on the radio. The set has been slightly changed a couple of times, but the clock which sits on the mantelpiece of the fireplace is the one that was there on opening night.
The play’s revised title comes from ‘Hamlet’, which is about all it shares with that masterpiece. The characters are cardboard and entirely without realism. The dialogue is arthritic. The pace is painful. It has been through and out the other side of parody. The manor house lodge in which the cast find themselves is snowed in – but the detective manages to get there on skis. Characters keep bursting through the door shaking white bits of plastic off their shoulders and complaining how cold it is. At the end, the audience is traditionally asked not to reveal the twist ending after leaving the theatre, but you’d have to be brain-dead not to know whodunnit. The audience is largely made up of tourists who have no idea what’s going on.
So what keeps this terrible old rubbish alive in a city where anything that isn’t up to scratch is whisked off within days? Partly, it’s a cosy fantasyland of an England that visitors have imagined and would like to see. Partly it’s become an institution, something to endure along with a trip to London’s other worst attractions, Madame Tussauds and the appalling ‘Blitz Experience’. Since it became a brand, ‘The Mousetrap’ regularly turns up around the world and is therefore no longer a uniquely London event. I wrote this piece because last night I walked past the version showing in Barcelona. There wasn’t much of a queue outside.