If any play has the right to call itself a British institution then it is most certainly The Mousetrap. Agatha Christie’s own deductive powers were proved wanting when the author herself predicted that the original production would probably last about 14 months but 60 years later it is still going strong at St Martin’s Theatre in London and the packed out Bristol Hippodrome tonight also attests to the continuing appeal of Christie’s classic whodunit.
Five guests struggle through a snow storm to arrive at the Metcalf’s newly opened guesthouse and it is clear that at least one of them will not be checking out again. It is a familiar scenario but on this occasion it was exactly what I expected and also hoped for. The show is as solid and classy as the beautifully designed period sitting room and so when the lights went up at the start of the performance the audience were in a world that was both familiar and strangely comforting - even in spite of an inevitable impending murder or two.
I’m not going to be the person to break the 60 year old secret of who the murderer is and I want to be careful not to reveal the twists or red herrings which occur along the way. This is a classic British murder mystery with all the assortment of characters you’d expect; a retired major, a bad tempered old biddy and a colourful comical eccentric among the potential victims/suspects. The cast for this first full-scale tour of the show contain a wealth of acting talent from TV soaps and dramas and all manage to expertly flesh out the deliberately broadly drawn cast of characters so they are not mere caricatures or archetypes. Bruno Langley and Jemma Walker work excellently together as the recently married couple having to deal the assortment of characters who arrive. Initial proceedings almost have an air of Fawlty Towers about them with fussy busy-body Mrs Boyle (Elizabeth Power) complaining about every aspect of the boarding house and the flamboyant Christopher Wren (Steven French) quickly grating on his male host’s nerves. Completing the guest list for the night are the amiable Major Metcalf (Graham Seed) and the studious and mysterious Miss Caswell (Clare Wilkie). Added to the mix is the unexpected arrival of slightly sinister Mr Paravicini played with relish by Karl Howman.
Events take a darker turn when a phone call comes through to say someone in the house has been connected with a recent murder in London and before long Detective Sergeant Trotter (Bob Saul) arrives (on skis no less) and everyone is both a suspect and potential victim. It is not long of course - before someone is murdered and as the curtains close on the first half the audience are busy predicting who committed the grisly deed and why.
The second half is full of possible motivations and unearthing each of the character’s hidden secrets. Christie is a master at planting clues and deliberately wrong-footing her audience and much of the fun from tonight’s show comes from testing your sleuthing abilities and also watching the actors clearly having fun with their characters.
This is good old fashioned theatre at its very best with a uniformly strong ensemble cast. The satisfyingly – slightly ridiculous – ending doesn’t disappoint and I for one got the murderer’s identity and motivation completely wrong. Agatha Christie herself tried to work out the enduring appeal of the show and concluded “It is the sort of play you can take anyone to. It’s not really frightening. It’s not really horrible. It’s not really a farce but it has a little bit of all these things and perhaps that satisfies a lot of different people” She could have added that it is just enormous fun, and for me this production does this legendary play proud.