It was 66 years ago, on 25 November, 1952, that one of Agatha Christie’s plays, The Mousetrap, began its theatrical run at The Ambassadors Theatre at the West End in London. Winston Churchill was still the British prime minister, Harry Truman, the US president and Joseph Stalin, the ruler of Russia at that time. It was just seven years since Adolf Hitler had died and six months since Princess Elizabeth had begun her long reign as Queen of England.
Cut to 2018: The UK is jostling with Brexit and Churchill, Truman and Stalin are dead, but The Mousetrap has ensured its longevity, enthralling audiences as the world’s longest continuous running show. This December, Blank Slate India brought the queen of crime’s classic whodunit to India, which premiered at the NCPA’s Jamshed Bhabha Theatre in Mumbai for five nights.
Speaking to Firstpost, the show director’s Denise Silvey said that having staged The Mousetrap around the world over the years, she jumped at the opportunity to perform in India. Originally written as a short radio play called Three Blind Mice in 1947 to celebrate the late Queen Mary’s birthday, the play has been performed more than 27,000 times at the West End in London. In March 1974, the London production moved from The Ambassadors Theatre to St Martin’s Theatre next door, without missing a single night of performance. The play has also been presented in 27 different languages in more than 50 countries. It is said there is rarely a night that goes without a performance of it somewhere in the world.
The Mousetrap is a murder mystery set in the freshly-opened Monkswell Manor guest house, run by newly-weds Molly and Giles Ralston. As the couple prepares for the arrival of its guests, a newsreader on the radio announces the murder of a woman on Culvert Street in London and says the suspect is on the loose. As the guests arrive, the weather worsens and all of them are snowed in. Meanwhile, Sergeant Trotter reaches the manor to inform the inhabitants that the escaped murderer is one among them. What follows is a witty, edge-of-the-seat mystery, with none of the characters revealing the complete truth till the very end.
The Mumbai production of The Mousetrap gripped the audience from the get-go, providing laughs along the way, as the characters within the play and the audience were kept guessing who the real murderer was. The acting was fresh and crisp, with each actor embodying little mannerisms of each character. For the Mumbai run of the play, the larger sets and props were constructed in the city, while the costumes were flown in from London.
Even as the murderer was finally revealed, a collective gasp went through the audience during the Mumbai shows. Christie’s storytelling is such that no matter how old the play, it always manages to surprise the audience. “It is a really good story. It has humour, suspense and lots of intrigue and mystery,” said Silvey, on what has ensured The Mousetrap’s worldwide success.
Silvey’s association with The Mousetrap goes back 24 years when she played Miss Casewell in 1994 at the West End. “I watched the play for the first time when I auditioned for the role, and fell in love with it then. I also fell in love with Miss Casewell. She is such a multi-layered character and fun to play. Since then, I have played Miss Casewell twice, once again in London, and once in China,” said Silvey, who has also been the artistic director at St Martin’s Theatre since 2009.
Since its inception in 1952, the production has changed considerably over the years with the focus in recent times on returning to its’ original script which, according to Silvey, has been “very successful”. “There was a time in the 80s and 90s (when Silvey was first in the show) that the play was set in ‘Christie time’, where the setting of the play was very vague, and at times didn’t really make sense. I’ve really concentrated on the story telling in this production. It is such a good story and I wanted it to come across as clearly as possible,” explained Silvey.
The Mousetrap, in Christie’s opinion, wasn’t her best play (she was most proud of Witness for the Prosecution). In her autobiography, the author recalled a conversation with the play’s first producer Peter Saunders, who said he expected the play to run 14 months at the most. “It won’t run that long,” Christie had replied. “Eight months, perhaps. Yes, I think eight months.”
Sixty-six years later, the curtain is yet to fall on the play’s run. Do we see an end to it in the near future? “I certainly hope not. Not on my watch anyway,” asserted Silvey.
“The audiences are still coming in their droves and what is so lovely is that generations come back and bring their children and grandchildren to see the show,” she said. As part of the 60th anniversary celebrations, 60 couples who had seen the play on a first date, or when they were on their honeymoon when it opened in 1952, were invited to watch the show again. “It was so wonderful to meet those couples and hear their stories. The affection they felt for the play was very heartwarming,” shared Silvey.
For the actors, being part of The Mousetrap is a chance to be part of London’s theatrical legacy. Over the past 66 years, more than 466 actors and 276 understudies have appeared in more than 27,000 performances of the London production. Jamie Hutchins, who played Sergeant Trotter in the Mumbai production, said that The Mousetrap is “exactly the sort of material an actor wants”.
“I've known about The Mousetrap for a long time but never read the play until I was given the opportunity to audition for an understudy part for the first UK tour back in 2012. I loved the play after reading it. Full of suspense, drama, laughs and chills!” he said.
Speaking about the process of getting into the skin of the character, Hutchins said the hardest part was to ensure the energy levels were running as they should be. If one started the show with low energy, it would go all downhill, making it very hard to turn it back around, he explained. He added that to keep up that energy for his character, Sergeant Trotter, was probably the hardest part.
“Trotter has challenged me in so many ways. He's an incredibly complex character. I think the main and most important challenge with Trotter is to make him likeable. He's described as a police man who is very stern and hard-boiled, and later in the play, a character reveals that they hate him.
“As an actor, it's my job to convey those characteristics as described in the play, but I need to find a way to make the audience like him and warm up to him. The second the audience decides that they dislike Trotter then I run the risk of the audience not caring, and if they don't care then there's a chance the audience will disconnect from the story,” said Hutchins.
What also makes The Mousetrap special is that it goes against the West End tradition of signing on big names in the cast, except for Richard Attenborough (who played Sergeant Trotter) and his wife Sheila Sims (as Mollie Ralston) in the original production. The cast used to be changed annually earlier. “We now change the cast every six months in London as we perform nine shows a week and we felt a year would be too long to sustain that for actors,” said Silvey.
The cast members that performed in Mumbai – Helen Clapp, Jamie Hutchins, Tom Rooke, Rhys Warrington, Sarah Whitlock, Graham Seed, Jason Hall and Millie Turner – were picked from the last couple of years in London. They were either part of the West End shows or performed as part of the UK tour of the production. “This is a really special cast that I am so proud of,” Silvey said ahead of the play’s premiere in the city.
Another unique tradition of The Mousetrap that has ensured its longevity is its secrecy regarding the play’s ending. At the end of each show, one actor from the cast addresses the audience directly, a tradition begun by Attenborough, and says: “Now you have seen The Mousetrap you are our partners in crime, and we ask you to preserve the tradition by keeping the secret of whodunit locked in your hearts.”
The Mousetrap was performed at NCPA’s Jamshed Bhabha Theatre on 5-9 December in Mumbai
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Updated Date: Dec 23, 2018 09:43:11 IST