Some of Australia’s leading artistic directors have recently suggested that, in these post lockdown times, it’s the familiar that audiences crave. After three years during which the world itself became strange, we are in no mood for anything remotely “novel”.
Producer John Frost is putting that theory to the test with this production of Agatha Christie’s classic whodunit The Mousetrap. The only thing more comforting you could put on a stage would be a packet of malted milk biscuits.
The Mousetrap opened in 1952 in the Ambassadors in London and, were it not for a global pandemic, would have celebrated an unbroken 70-year West End run this year – seven decades during which this elegant little mystery became a “must-see” to be ticked off on a list with Buckingham Palace and Madame Tussauds.
The Mousetrap’s reputation waned and by the early 1980s, when I first saw it, it was something of a stale joke on the moribund state of Britain and its theatre – a dusty trap for cheese sandwich-munching tourists on rainy afternoons. And was there an amateur dramatic stage in the English-speaking world on which The Mousetrap was not itself murdered at some point? I think not.
But the play’s reputation has been revived, its formal elegance lauded. Though the play never changes, we’ve begun to see more in it: a depiction of a class system melting at the edges; the sympathetic rendering of identifiably queer characters; an embedded warning regarding the trustworthiness of those claiming authority.
And now more than ever, perhaps, we can see The Mousetrap as a story about the persistence of, and damage caused by, unacknowledged trauma.
A rich red curtain rises on the imposing drawing room of Monkswell Manor. It is winter 1952. Snow is falling, drifts are forming.
In a sign of changing times, Monkswell has become a guest house run by an energetic young couple, the Ralstons – Mollie (played here by Anna O’Byrne) and Giles (Alex Rathgeber). Tonight is their launch event, the first time they’ve welcomed guests to this bucolic, albeit freezing, corner of Berkshire.
And what guests they are: the prickly, fault-finding Mrs Boyle (Geraldine Turner); Christopher Wren (Laurence Boxhall), a flamboyant trainee architect; the retired Major Metcalf (Adam Murphy); and the unconventionally dashing Ms Casewell (Charlotte Friels), who has lived most of her life abroad.
There are also two unexpected guests: the first is Mr Paravicini (Gerry Connolly), who arrives claiming to have overturned his Rolls-Royce in a snowdrift; the second is Det Sgt Trotter (Tom Conroy), who arrives on skis and climbs through a window to inform us that all assembled are now suspects in a murder case and that one or more of them will die tonight. “One of you is a killer,” he announces. But which one?
With the telephone wire cut and bad weather preventing escape (and the arrival of Trotter’s backup), people who seemed merely odd begin to assume a guilty aspect. Is Paravicini really wearing makeup? Why was the Major exploring the cellar? Why does Giles have a copy of a London newspaper in his pocket despite claiming he hadn’t gone to town?
Directed by Robyn Nevin, this Mousetrap is springy and efficient. Even at this early stage of its development, ahead of a national tour, there’s a sense of ease in the staging, the elasticity that comes with confidence. The pace is cracking, the timing excellent, the characterisations warm and full.
O’Byrne (whom we more usually see on musical theatre stages) is a crisply delightful Mollie and very capably partnered by Rathgeber. Boxhall brings a touch of Hugh Grant daffiness to Wren (and a dash of hot feeling for Trotter). Friels’s long-striding Ms Casewell is impeccable, and Connolly is a playful, mischievous Paravicini. Conroy’s intriguing Trotter blends forelock-tugging deference to his social “betters” with a disdain for their foibles and a dogged determination to expose the killer.
The relatively tight stage of the Theatre Royal accommodates Isabel Hudson’s set just about perfectly. The small details are nicely done, right down to the period-perfect RP of the radio newsreader who opens the play. The twist, when it comes, packs an appreciable punch.
If it’s comfort you need, look no further.
The Mousetrap’s Sydney run continues until 30 October at the Theatre Royal, before the production tours to Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne