You know the Mousetrap – it’s been on in the West End since 1952. You may have seen it once, long ago; you wouldn’t dream of going back to see it again, though. Yet when they announced this “first ever UK tour” (not strictly true as it had some regional try-outs fifty years ago), it obviously piqued the nation’s curiosity, as the seats at Milton Keynes, for example, got booked up more or less an in instant. Mrs Chrisparkle and I were certainly very keen to go. She hadn’t seen it before; I saw it with my mum in 1971. The cast then included Carol Marsh (Rose in Brighton Rock) as Mollie, Steve Plytas (Kurt the Fawlty Towers chef who falls in love with Manuel) as Mr Paravicini, Bee Duffell (the Old Woman in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who refuses to assist the King in the search for a shrubbery) as Mrs Doyle, and Kevin Sheehan (who sang on my 1967 Music For Pleasure album of Doctor Dolittle) as Sergeant Trotter. I got all their autographs at the Stage Door. Carol Marsh asked my mum and me who we thought dunnit. I remember we all had a very jolly conversation.
Of course there are still three members of the original cast alive I believe – Richard Attenborough, who played Trotter, Sheila Sim (his wife) who played Mollie and Jessica Spencer, the original Miss Casewell. John Paul, who played Giles, and who many people will remember from that old BBC TV series Doomwatch, lived near us and used to go out drinking with my dad. So maybe those personal memories account for why I was very keen to see the play again. We are both Agatha Christie fans too – but I’m afraid we’ll never again get Mrs C into a production by the “Agatha Christie Company” – we saw “The Hollow” and she hated it.
Back to this touring production of The Mousetrap. It was without doubt an evening of highs and lows. The set is 100% faithful to Christie’s original and the costumes and props are 1952 to the Nth degree. The accents are cut glass crystal English genteel except for Paravicini and Trotter, which is more or less how Christie wrote it. So if you were expecting any bold modern adaptations in this production you will be sadly disappointed. If you would prefer time to stand still, you will approve, although I didn’t see the point of the final line of the play, which is an addition that doesn’t appear in my French’s Acting Edition text – I wonder when that was introduced?
Unfortunately I wasn’t very convinced by the performances of Jemma Walker as Mollie or Bruno Langley as Giles. Miss Walker seemed a little too glamorous to be an industrious wannabe hotelier, and I didn’t believe her growing friendship with Wren – I just didn’t “get” the moment when they suddenly start to get on. I also didn’t really care for her more hysterical moments – they didn’t come across to me as genuine shock and terror, more like a thwarted starlet on the casting couch. As for Mr Langley, he seemed to be doing an impersonation of a rather bumptiously hearty young husband instead of actually being one. It’s quite early on in the tour – which is very extensive – so hopefully they will grow more into the roles in time. The same applies – although not quite so much – to Thomas Howes as Sergeant Trotter. Mrs C found him rather shouty, whereas I found it hard to think of him as anything other than a Downton Abbey footman. I think he was good expressing the character’s quieter, less officious moments – but turned into a Gatling Gun when he was laying down the law and bullying the suspects.
On the other hand, I thought Steven France as Christopher Wren gave more or less a faultless performance. This must be such a hard part to play. The character’s speeches are incredibly camp and he has to deal with the most awkward, laboured, over-the-top lines, appearing to be both neurotic and “most peculiar” (according to Mrs Boyle). It must be very difficult to play it other than in “outrageously gay” mode. However, Mr France really conveys a filled-out character here – yes, you get the campness but you also get the sense of a disturbed mind, a character both easily threatened and potentially very threatening. I was very impressed with the way he conveyed it.
Another excellent performance came from Clare Wilkie as Miss Casewell. Another gay character – interesting in itself for 1952 – physically she captures Christie’s description of a “young woman of a manly type” perfectly without becoming a stereotype, and I really liked her portrayal of the character’s irritation with the world and its inhabitants, especially Mrs Boyle and Sgt Trotter. Without giving any of the game away, there is a moment towards the end of the play when Miss Casewell makes an important realisation – and I thought Miss Wilkie caught that moment really well.
Jan Waters plays Mrs Boyle – she has done so in the past in London too – and it’s a good, thoughtful performance, although she is not how I imagine Mrs Boyle to be. Christie describes her as a large imposing woman in a bad temper – I would see that as a Margaret Rutherford or Maggie Smith creation – but Miss Waters is rather elegant and formally well behaved, and you get the feeling that her sense of her own dignity requires her to keep her annoyance close to her chest rather than letting rip. By contrast, I remember Bee Duffell playing her as a right bitch of a tricky pensioner.
Karl Howman’s Paravicini lacked a little of the camp that I think would make him more like Hercule Poirot (again Christie’s description) but he was quite eerie and disconcerting in his own way, and I think it was a pretty impressive performance. Graham Seed’s Major Metcalf was insufficiently military for my liking – I think he should be more like the Major in Fawlty Towers but with all his marbles. This Metcalf was very nice but rather bland – more like a Customer Services Representative than a Leader Of Men.
The moments of high tension still work extremely well. The gloved hand that emerges from a side room that turns off the lights and will commit murder is still delightfully creepy, and the moment when the identity of the murderer is revealed still inspires a wave of gasps of incredulity throughout the theatre. As is traditional, at curtain call the murderer asks that the audience keep the secret as to whodunit, and I for one am certainly not going to spoil it for others. As the audience were leaving the auditorium you could sense a general satisfaction with the evening; people were comparing who they thought dunnit with each other; so, for want of a better phrase, it absolutely Does What it Says on the Tin. If you haven’t seen the play before, really it’s a no-brainer; you should see it, simply to broaden your general knowledge. If you have seen it before, there are plenty of things to enjoy about this production, even if, overall, it’s just a little bit creaky for today’s discerning theatregoing public.
I said it was an evening of highs and lows. All the above were highs in comparison with our seats – C18 & 19 in the stalls. I’ve already told you that the Milton Keynes Theatre have created an extra row – Row CC – in front of Row C, and that it looked like it was a recipe for disaster. Well, now I can confirm it. Row C used to have magnificent leg room, and have a nice little rake up from Row B. Now the rake is gone and Row CC appears where your feet should be. The seats in both rows are slightly smaller and fold away discreetly when not in use, but if you’re trying to get past someone sat in Row C, and if the seat in front in Row CC is also occupied, even if the Row C person stands up to let you through, you’ve got precious little chance. You need scaffolding to get across – there is absolutely no room whatsoever. Mrs C found her seat very uncomfortable and also had an atrocious view of the stage. She could tell that the lady in CC in front had an equally, if not worse, view, by the way she was darting her head all over the place every time an actor moved. A large amount of the action of the second act of The Mousetrap takes place seated on the sofa at the front of the stage. Mrs C could see nothing of that. In the end I observed she had given up struggling to watch, preferring to look downwards at her lap and listen to the play as though it were the original Three Blind Mice on the wireless. If, like me, you like to sit Front Stalls, your choices at this theatre are now very limited. Rows AA and BB are too close to the stage and you will need a chiropractor to help you with your neck strain afterwards. Row A is fine. If you can’t get in Row A, my advice is don’t consider any of the next rows till you get to E. In the No Man’s Land in between, it’s cramped, with no rake and thoroughly disappointing. What was once an auditorium to look forward to is now an auditorium to dread. How sad.