Playtime: The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie

“Keep the secret of whodunit locked in your heart.”

The Mousetrap 1.jpgThe longest-running West End show ever (it opened in 1952 and has just kind of kept going) is actually quite hard to track down online, especially if you’d like to be able to hear what the actors are saying and not get seasick from shaky camera action. The version I eventually settled on was pretty good apart from the person who coughed all the way through. And the rather hit-and-miss efforts of the American actors to affect British accents, but then I am British so I know the difference.

The play is a murder mystery. Apart from the first scene, which is a murder played out in sound only, all the action takes place in Monkswell Manor, recently converted to a guesthouse by its new owners, the young couple Mollie and Giles Ralston, who are aware of the murder thanks to a news bulletin on the radio which also informs them that heavy snow is expected to paralyse the country that night. Their guests prove to be a mixed bag of glorious clichés:

Christopher Wren, the first to arrive, is a young architect who bears a strong resemblance to Monty Python’s Upper Class Twit. Silly to the point of manic, he quickly becomes rather fond of Mollie.

Mrs Boyle is a sour-faced retired magistrate who complains about everything and wants to know why the Ralstons haven’t hired any servants yet.

Major Metcalf is an affable ex-military man who keeps himself to himself.

Miss Casewell is, in the language of the time, a rather ‘mannish’ young woman who has temporarily returned to England from abroad. Her distaste for Mrs Boyle is evident, and she clearly enjoys irritating her.

Mr Paravincini is the only guest to have arrived without a booking. A ‘foreigner’, his car has overturned in a snowdrift, and as the law requires them not to turn away a traveller with the means to pay, Mollie puts him in the last available room.

The following day a policeman, Sergeant Trotter, arrives on skis. He informs the residents of Monkswell Manor that he is there in connection with the murder: a notebook was found at the scene with the address of the victim, the address of the manor, and the words ‘three blind mice’ written in it. A note pinned to the victim suggests that she was the first of an intended three. The other two victims, Trotter informs them, and the killer him- or herself, are all present in the Manor.

The Mousetrap on Tour
The characters are a mixed bag of clichés: see how many you can match to their character descriptions.

The remainder of the play deals with the effort to unmask the killer, which is ultimately successful, although not before another victim, the unpleasant Mrs Boyle, has been dispatched. The play is famous for having a ‘twist’ ending, which is supposed to be kept secret but which can be located online with little difficulty. I chose not to seek this information out, but had already developed a pretty shrewd idea of who it would be, and was pleased to be proven right.

Christie was a master craftswoman when it came to murder mysteries, and The Mousetrap, although dated, was thoroughly enjoyable. Indeed, it is easy to see in the play the genesis of modern British murder mystery shows like Midsomer Murders and Lewis, which are very different from their grittier American counterparts. If you’ve got a couple of hours to kill you could do far worse than to watch it – or, better yet, seize the chance to see it live.

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