Agatha Christie’s ultra-famous whodunit The Mousetrap returns to Bristol Hippodrome this month, the latest stop in its ongoing 60th anniversary tour. It is classic Christie, a rapidly twisting tale that takes great glee in subverting one of the most enduring tropes in crime fiction.
The story begins with Giles and Mollie Ralston, the imminent opening of their guesthouse Monkswell Manor, and the news of a murder in faraway London. The guests trickle in during a heavy snowstorm, which soon cuts off the house from the wider world. Only then does a detective arrive – on skis, in case you were wondering – to reveal that the murder the Ralstons and their lodgers have been discussing might not be so distant after all.
Yet the great mystery surrounding it is not the identity of its villain, but exactly how this play has become the longest-running theatre production anywhere in the world.
The London iteration of The Mousetrap pre-dates Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation and the end of post-war rationing in Britain. It opened at the Ambassador’s Theatre in November 1952 and transferred next door to the St Martin’s Theatre in 1974, where it has remained ever since. It is now in its 64th year – and, technically, still in its initial run. To date there have been more than 26,000 performances. The 60th anniversary tour, being performed concurrently to the London show, was launched in 2012. Aptly, it shows no signs of slowing down either.
The riddle of why this particular tale has endured for so long has never been solved; even Christie herself only gave it eight months. But there is much more to The Mousetrap than its record-breaking run. Below are eight of its lesser-known secrets.
- There is still one original cast member in each production
The Mousetrapopens with a recording of a radio broadcast reporting a murder – the same recording played to audiences in 1952, in fact. The voice belongs to English actor Deryck Guyler, who has ‘appeared’ in every UK showing of The Mousetrap to date. He passed away in 1999.
- It was born out of a request from one queen to another
In 1947, the BBC offered Queen Mary a special radio broadcast to mark her 80th birthday, and what she asked for was a new play by Agatha Christie. The Queen of Crime agreed, and the result was a half-hour drama calledThree Blind Mice. When it was fleshed out for the stage five years later the title had to be altered, as there had already been a play of that name in the West End. And so The Mousetrap was born.
- It was R-rated for the first 10 years
Yes, children were ‘banned’ from watchingThe Mousetrap in its first decade by the now-defunct Public Morality Council, which considered it to be a corrupting influence. It seems the ban was largely ignored, however – at the time it was lifted in 1962, it was estimated that one in five people who had seen the production were children.
- The production values are still old-school
Even in this digital age, most of the sound cues – the wind, bells, slamming doors – are created live backstage. There’s also a dedicated ‘snow room’ where cast members are doused in white foam flakes every time they step on stage from the blizzard ‘outside’.
- You shouldn’t expect to see a film adaptation any time soon
Given its relentless popularity, why hasn’t there been a film version ofThe Mousetrap? It’s a legal thing. When British producer John Woolf bought the adaptation rights in the 1950s, they came with the caveat that the play couldn’t hit screens until six months after the West End theatre run had ended. Don’t hold your breath.
- Everyone who sees it becomes a partner in crime
The Mousetrap’stwist ending is one of the most closely guarded secrets in Theatreland, and this theme carries on past the final curtain. Every performance ends with one of the actors exacting a pledge from the audience to keep the identity of the murderer “locked in their hearts”.
- Wikipedia broke the promise
One outlet that couldn’t keep the secret was Wikipedia, which published an unmarked spoiler for the twist ending in 2010. Fans of the play were outraged. Christie’s grandson Mathew Prichard, who holds the rights to the play, called it “unfortunate” and “a pity”. Wikipedia responded by suggesting that avoiding the spoiler was easy: “just don’t read it”. In the end Wikipedia capitulated to a degree, with the identity of the murderer still online but under a separate heading.
- Naturally, it has spawned a parody
The Mousetrapserves as the inspiration for Tom Stoppard’s farcical The Real Inspector Hound, which premiered in the West End in 1968. It parodies both The Mousetrap’s setting and its jealously guarded dénouement – so best avoid the Wikipedia entry for this one too.