There is a wooden sign in the foyer at the St Martin’s Theatre that tells you how many times Agatha Christie’s famous play has been performed. On the day I visit the theatre, this board reads 27550. One of the attendants at the venue informs me that audience members regularly take selfies with the sign, eager to record their brief brush with theatrical history. The sign and selfies signify the fact that The Mousetrap is now the world’s longest running play.
Later, I learn from the same friendly attendant that the production became Britain’s longest running show as far back as 1958. As it turns out, plays in those days just didn’t last that long. Indeed, Christie’s autobiography recalls a conversation that the author had with the play’s producer, Peter Saunders. “I am going to give it Fourteen months”, Saunders said. “It won’t run that long,” Christie replied. “Eight months perhaps. Yes, I think eight months.”
What would Christie think today, if she were to learn of the play’s phenomenal achievements? The show has become a London institution as well as a key part of the well heeled tourist’s visit to the capital.
However, before you consign the production to the mental dustbin marked “historical curiosity” you should note that the play is much more than an odd anachronism. The show’s current director is keen to make this very point. Geoff Bullen is eager to emphasise that the play still works as a bit of dramatic theatre. “The characters are not just cardboard cut-outs,” he says. “It’s wonderfully structured – up there with A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
An eight member cast bring the story to life each night. It takes a particular skill to sustain the passion and focus necessary to continually reinvigorate such a long running and well known piece but the cast achieve the feat admirably and on a nightly basis. They are no doubt encouraged by the fact that they are playing their part in a piece of theatrical history. More than 400 actors have appeared in The Mousetrap over its 60 year run. The list includes Richard Attenborough (the original Detective Sergeant Trotter) and his wife Sheila Sim, (who playec Mollie Ralston). Surprisingly, most of the actors who followed the pair are little known outside of the theatre world. This highlights the fact that The Mousetrap is the star, rather than any one player.
The play itself is classic Christie. A murder mystery with a list of mysterious characters – no one is exactly what they seem and everyone has secrets that they are desperate to hide. In common with much Christie, the characters are marooned together, and it is in this tightened space that their lies are one by one revealed.
In the light of blockbuster television shows like Broadchurch and Unforgotten the story feels almost contemporary. The whodunnit is once again very much a staple of British television viewing.
The show has attracted an incredibly starry audience over the years with the likes of Sir Winston Churchill, Quentin Tarantino and even her majesty Queen Elizabeth II gracing the theatre on St Martin’s Lane. The stars are attracted as much by Christie as they are by the remarkable achievements of the production.
If you do go and see the The Mousetrap, please remember to keep the identity of the murderer a secret. The producers of the play famously make a plea to the audience after each performance of the play. A member of the cast walks onto to stage and adresses the crowd directly. “Now you have seen The Mousetrap, you are our partners in crime” they say. “We ask you to preserve the tradition by keeping the secret of whodunit locked in your hearts.” By all accounts the secret is safe for a few years yet.