The magical mystery tour

Agatha Christie's classic whodunnit, The Mousetrap, is 60 years young and coming to Canberra, Ron Cerabona writes

Every playwright and producer dreams of a long run, but nobody - including the author - expected The Mousetrap to be quite the phenomenon that it became. Bestselling mystery writer Agatha Christie's play opened in the West End of London in 1952 and in 1957 it became the longest-running West End play, then in 1958 it became the longest-running West End show of any kind.

And it is still running, 60 years and more than 24,000 performances later - the longest run of any theatrical production. And to think that when her grandson Mathew Prichard was given the rights as a birthday present when he turned nine, he said, ''I was more interested in a bicycle.'' (He could have bought many bicycles and much else besides with the royalties he accrued). There have, of course, been many cast changes since 1952 but it's changed theatres only once since then - moving from the New Ambassadors Theatre to the St Martin's Theatre next door in 1974 - and it's still the same production, seen by many, many people, all of whom have been exhorted at the end not to reveal the identity of the murderer.

The rights have been closely guarded. Now, to celebrate its diamond anniversary, 60 professional productions have been licensed on five continents in cities around the world, ranging from Holland to China to Venezuela - and one of these productions is Australian.

Directed by Gary Young, who won a Helpmann Award for Sideshow Alley, the production features a seasoned cast of Australian talent.

The Mousetrap is set in England in 1952. A woman has been murdered in London, but out in the country, at the converted Monkswell Manor, young married couple Giles and Mollie Ralston (Gus Murray and Christy Sullivan) have other things to worry about: they are getting their new guest house ready for its opening during a heavy snowfall.

The guests arrive safely and then, after the place is snowed in, Sergeant Trotter (Justin Smith) arrives on skis suspecting one of the house's seven occupants is the London killer. As well as the Ralstons, those in the house are the eccentric young Christopher Wren (Travis Cotton), the difficult Mrs Boyle (Linda Cropper), retired Major Metcalf (Nicholas Hope), spinster Miss Casewell (Jacinta John) and the unexpected visitor Mr Paravicini, who claims his car ran into a snowdrift.


Trotter starts his questioning of the house-bound group. Everyone seems to have something to hide and everyone is a suspect. And then there's another murder …

Murray, 31, who played Father Dan on McLeod's Daughters in its later years, says he wasn't all that familiar with Agatha Christie's work before being cast.

''Leading up to this I watched some of the films and read some of the books.''

He was surprised, he says, to find Christie's works were ''not old-fashioned at all'' but were mystery stories well told with plenty of wit and satirical touches.

''We're doing it pretty straight, as she imagined it. We don't need to do it tongue-in-cheek. There's enough humour in it without sending it up.''

And The Mousetrap, despite its period setting, has some surprising contemporary resonances.

''The characters complain about the cost of living, the price of coal - all these things we still do today.''

While for obvious reasons he can't talk too much about the story, he says his character, Giles, and his new wife Mollie find their love tested over the course of the play as revelation follows revelation.

Christie's popularity has endured since her death in 1976 with her books remaining in print and numerous film and television adaptations of her works as well as productions of her plays. And The Mousetrap has particularly endured in its own unique way.

Murray thinks part of this is the ongoing appeal of mystery stories - people love puzzles, he says, and enjoy trying to pick up the clues.

''It's almost interactive theatre. You hear the audience murmuring and responding, piecing things together. That's what we love.''

Murray says nobody in the cast had ever seen The Mousetrap despite its long run and legendary reputation. ''We were all as excited as anyone to find out what the story was like.''

He says the lack of familiarity meant ''we could do a fresh take on it'' while remaining faithful to the spirit of the show. ''It's a very traditional kind of play. People wouldn't want it any other way. It's traditional Agatha Christie and that's what they get.''

Helping to make sure the production is authentic is Stephen Waley-Cohen, a theatre manager and producer and The Mousetrap's London producer for the past 18 years.

''This particular play was a huge hit when it opened. It had two big film stars - Richard Attenborough and his wife Sheila Sim - which made a big difference then as it does now.''

But even when they left the play after 18 months, the play just kept going, and going, breaking records and becoming a major tourist attraction.

''It became to some extent self-perpetuating,'' Waley-Cohen says. ''It's a very good play … very entertaining, everybody has a good time.''

And he thinks people agree to keep the murderer's identity secret because ''they've had a really good time and want their friends to have a good time''.

Waley-Cohen saw a couple of rehearsals of the Australian production and says, ''The director was kind enough to let me tell him what I thought.''

He had a few suggestions, mostly regarding how some of the clues were revealed, but says, ''They were more detail than principle - I thought they got that exactly right.''

And he says, ''The cast is terrific - they all look the part and perform extremely well.''

While the London production set a couple of other records - David Raven played the role of Major Metcalfe for 4575 performances and Nancy Seabrooke was the world's longest-serving understudy for 6240 performances over 15 years - times have changed somewhat. The Mousetrap is now recast every year to keep it fresh - ''asking actors to do more than a full year is asking too much'' - and occasionally a new director is engaged to freshen it without spoiling what makes it work.

''That's one of the challenges, finding a director who's good and sufficiently interested to do it, but who doesn't want to reorganise it.''

He hasn't visited every production - ''I'd be in perpetual motion if I did'' - but has seen productions in Philadelphia and in South Africa which he says ''are not as good as this'' though he says ''they were both first-rate'' and both broke box-office records in their cities.

''Australia is absolutely as important as any other [production]. It's an English-speaking market … and will tour all the major centres over four months.''

He says that when the rights were offered, ''We looked at all those expressing interest and picked people we felt would respect the tradition and do a good job in terms of artistic quality and sell it well.''

With this professional Australian premiere Waley-Cohen says, ''I was clear it had to be done in the spirit of Agatha Christie'', and he's satisfied it has been and that Australians who haven't had the chance to go to London will be able to enjoy The Mousetrap and to see what makes it so special.

The Mousetrap is on at the Canberra Theatre on August 1 to 5 and 7 to 9 at 8pm, August 4 at 2pm, August 5 at 1pm and 5.30pm and August 8 at 1pm. Tickets $85-$120. Bookings: 62752700 or www.canberratheatrecentre.com.au