The Moustrap in diamond year
Production scene from The Moustrap

In the year The Mousetrap opened at the New Ambassadors Theatre in London's West End, the 25-year-old Elizabeth Windsor ascended the throne, wartime tea-rationing came to an end and Vera Lynn was topping the charts with Auf Wiederseh'n Sweetheart.

If the logic of showbiz held firm, Agatha Christie's drawing room murder-mystery should have ended its run before an ailing Winston Churchill handed over the British prime ministership to Anthony Eden in 1955 (Christie herself expected it to wrap up after four months).

However, unlike the hundreds of victims of Britain's gleefully murderous Queen of Crime, The Mousetrap refused to die. It has seen off many of its founding cast, including Richard Attenborough, to become the longest-running play in theatrical history.

Since debuting in 1952 there have been upwards of 25,000 performances with more than 400 actors joining the revolving-door ensemble who each night gather in the Great Hall of Monkswell Manor in the middle of a snowstorm to play out the most famous guessing game in theatrical history.

Those mind-boggling numbers are currently being added to with the first Australian tour of The Mousetrap, one of 60 professional productions that have been licensed around the world to celebrate the diamond anniversary of Christie's indefatigable warhorse.

Clearly a touch of theatrical magic is at work because the identity of the killer has somehow remained a secret (no, it wasn't the butler because there is no butler in the play) and it has continued to draw audiences even though it's hardly in the same league as other 1950s classics such as Death of a Salesman, Look Back in Anger or Waiting for Godot.

Not surprisingly, London theatre critics have grown weary of the nightly ritual of tourists packing out a play with all the chic and cultural relevance of a pipe and smoking jacket when more cutting-edge works open and close in the blink of an eye.

Despite regular cast changes "it's an extraordinarily musty piece", sniffed The Daily Telegraph's Charles Spencer. "The dialogue creaks, the characters are one-dimensional and the plot plods along like an arthritic policeman on the beat."

But The Mousetrap is not so much a play as a cherished cultural artefact, with visitors to London routinely including a performance on a list-ticking itinerary along with visits to Madame Tussauds, the Tower Bridge, the Victorian and Albert Museum and Kew Gardens.

Indeed, the Japanese are among the most enthusiastic audience members even though many may not understand a single word.

Another curiosity of The Mousetrap is that there's never been any attempt to update the play to any subsequent era - for example, to give it the vibe of the Swinging 60s to compete against the rise of Harold Pinter or Tom Stoppard, or perhaps to adopt an ironic, audience-winking approach that filmmakers often employ when adapting "classics" of uncertain artistic merit (The Addams Family, The Brady Bunch, etc).

In other words, what you will be seeing at His Majesty's later this month is precisely the same show opening-night audiences experienced in 1952.

"I'm glad the producers resisted contemporising The Mousetrap because audiences would have hated it," says Australian actress Linda Cropper, whose hard-boiled Mrs Boyle is one of several guests who arrive at a snowbound guest house which becomes the site of the murder and subsequent investigation.

"People enjoy the game of guessing the identity of the killer but much of the charm of The Mousetrap comes from it being so unabashedly old-fashioned.

"We rarely see the well-made play nowadays, especially a murder-mystery, so audiences take a lot of pleasure watching the theatrical levers being pulled so cleverly."

Indeed, that theatrical machinery is so sound that the producers of the Australian Mousetrap tour have avoided anything that distracts from the play itself, such as flashy or gimmick casting to drag in people who would not normally go to the theatre (no Bert Newton, no Jon English).

Instead, they've opted for a mix of stage and screen veterans, such as Cropper and Bell Shakespeare Associate Artist, Robert Alexander, accomplished mid-career performers Travis Cotton, Jacinta John, Gus Murray and Justin Smith, and 2009 WA Academy of Performing Arts graduate Christina Sullivan.

The only curiosity is Nicholas Hope (aka Bad Boy Bubby) as a retired military man with a period-perfect moustache.

"What sells The Mousetrap is not the cast but the play itself," says Cropper, who has been on a roll for the past few years, captivating audiences with her Lady Macbeth in Bell Shakespeare's production of Macbeth, and plays John Waters' feisty, accomplished wife in Ten's acclaimed comedy-drama, Offspring.

"People have been booking to see it not because of who is in it but because it is The Mousetrap, which is fantastic because our emphasis on celebrity marginalises so many wonderful actors. And if you keep seeing the same people trotted out all the time it is boring for the audience."

Although The Mousetrap celebrated its diamond jubilee in the same year as the Queen, its origins are even more ancient.

Inspired by the real-life case of Dennis O'Neill, a 12-year-old Welsh boy whose shocking death in foster care leads to a major inquiry into adoption practices in the UK, Christie's original version of the story was a radio play titled Three Blind Mice that was first broadcast in 1947.

Christie recycled that plot, first as a short story (which has only been published in the US) and then as a three-act stage play but she could not use the title Three Blind Mice because it was already taken by another production.

Christie's nephew Matthew Prichard, to whom she gifted the rights and royalties as a birthday present when he turned nine, told The Guardian that he remembers lying in a bathtub while his auntie paced the corridors outside trying to think of a new title.

"His stepfather broke off from bashing ping pong balls in the style of Len Hutton to say, 'Why don't you call it The Mousetrap?' - and the rest was theatre history."

The West Australian

Popular videos

Compare & Save

Our Picks

More from The West