Agatha Christie is often referred to as the ‘Queen of Crime’. Her murder mystery play The Mousetrap, currently showing at the King’s theatre in Edinburgh, follows a whodunit storyline with a host of classic characters and a twist ending. A structure which we are so used to seeing parodied nowadays that the original is slightly hard to process.
The whole play takes place in an English country house, Monkswell Manor, after the Second World War (present day at the first performance). The house has just been converted into a guesthouse and as the first guests are arriving two things happen, a murder earlier that day is announced on the wireless and a snowstorm sets in preventing anyone from coming or going. The audience prepares itself for the plot to inevitably thicken, as slowly multiple characters begin to seem candidates for both murderer and next victim.
The fun of the show, as a viewer, lies in the gaining of information and attempt to understand the mystery. It’s like watching a game of Cluedo. The actors’ main purpose is to deliver that information clearly and in this sense they do fulfil their purpose. The acting is an odd mixture of naturalism, intensive characterisation and an old-fashioned over the top style. Oliver Gully as Christopher Wren, the strange young man claiming to be an architect, and Gregory Cox as the undetermined foreigner, Mr Paravicini, who seems to enjoy pretending to be a villain cliché, are both overdone. Or at least they come across as such because the other actors all seem to be taking a slightly more naturalistic approach. The lack of consistency makes the show slightly uncomfortable to watch and it is generally hard to tell whether the script or performers are to blame. When the big reveal occurs one is almost too absorbed in the excitement to realise how unconvincing the portrayals are in the final scene.
The set which has been used since 1999, on the other hand, is purely naturalistic and cannot be faulted. A beautiful interior of the main room of the manor with wooden furniture, armchairs and sofa, and with working lamps and radio that are turned on and off by the actors add to the atmosphere wonderfully. The costume is also realistic and serves its own functions in the plot, the murderer is said to have a black coat and felt hat which conveniently several do.
The Mousetrap was first performed in 1952 and is the longest running play in the history of theatre. But does it still work? It certainly feels outdated watching it in 2016. The rather unenlightened depiction of the foreigner Paravicini, being a more obvious example. But more than that there is something tired in the script, which is hardly surprising as it is never going to be easy to bring new life into a play after over 25,000 performances. People, particularly those of a much older generation, seem to watch it now either through dedication, for the novelty or as a tourist attraction. Waley-Cohen, the play’s current producer along with Adam Spiegel, said ‘Managed properly, I think it will run for ever.’ But we have to ask ourselves, do we really want to watch or put on theatre just for the sake of it?