… the number of performances of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap I’d missed before attending this week. Why? I mentioned in a conversation towards the end of last year that despite living in London for so long, and going to the theatre regularly during that time, seeing The Mousetrap was one of the things that I’d never done, ditto visiting Madame Toussaud’s and the Tower of London. Needless to say, one of the Christmas presents I received was tickets for the play.
The Mousetrap opened in 1952 in Ambassador’s Theatre, and seamlessly transferred to St Martin’s Theatre right next door in 1974 without a break in the sequence of shows.
Along the way it has become the world’s longest running stage show. I did wonder how it might compare to The Archers, the BBC radio drama transmitted in 15 minute episodes several times each week since 1951, but by the time I saw The Mousetrap it had only completed 18,193 episodes.
So what was performance 26,753 like? Well, it was an interesting event and it triggered a number of talking points, but it isn’t very good. There were some enthusiastic and entertaining performances and there’s an inventive conclusion, but the journey to that final destination was rather pedestrian. There’s no sparkle, or crackle, or tingle. It’s very evident that longevity in itself is no substitute for quality. Drama, and theatre, have come a long way since 1952 and the production shows its age. The theatre’s display of practically every playbill from each of its 65 years reinforces the impression that the play has only changed its cast and everything else is preserved in aspic. There’s certainly no evidence of the production having received any new or original ideas during that time. It’s like a theatrical time capsule, but on display for eight performances a week rather than interred deep in some thespian archive.
I’m not sure who it’s for. The performance I attended had a sparse audience dotted around the whole auditorium. I’ve known theatres to “upgrade” its customers to ensure the stalls are full and the cast can see the house isn’t deserted, but these poor actors would have only seen a swathe of empty seats before them. The box office proudly asserts that all tickets are full price and no deals are available: if that’s the case then they are turning a blind eye to their problems.
Last year the National Theatre staged a production of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea which was also first performed in 1952. They are different types of play, but the difference between the entertainment value of the two productions couldn’t be more extreme. And it’s not just that The Deep Blue Sea addresses more “serious” issues than the country house murder mystery because last year also, The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond restaged Rattigan’s 1936 farce French Without Tears and that production, faithful to the original material, still offered an entertaining contemporary perspective on the traditional country house form.
The Mousetrap displays no evidence of anything happening since 1952. No Samuel Beckett, no John Osborne, no Harold Pinter, no Arnold Wesker, no Joe Orton, no Tom Stoppard (you can complete the list) and that’s just theatre. Agatha Christie can be performed with panache, as last year’s TV production of And Then There Were None demonstrated. Period drama can be interesting and entertaining, but if that’s what you want to see then I’d suggest you’d be better off finding something else.