There is a wooden sign in the foyer at the St Martin’s Theatre that tells you how many times The Mousetrap has been performed on the London stage. On the day I visit the theatre, the board reads 27,550. An attendant informs me that audience members regularly take selfies with the sign, eager to record their brief brush with theatre history and the world’s longest running play.
What I learn later is even more remarkable. As it turns out, the production became the world’s longest running show way back in 1958! Not that The Mousetrap’s author Agatha Christie had any idea of the piece’s potential longevity when she wrote the play in 1947. Christie’s autobiography recalls a conversation that she had with the show’s producer, Peter Saunders. “I am going to give it Fourteen months”, said Saunders. Christie shook her head. “It won’t run that long,” she said. “Eight months, perhaps. Yes, I think I’ll give it eight months.”
I wonder what Christie would think today, if she were to gaze onto the same board that I am now looking at. in 2022, the Mousetrap is as much a part of London culture as Wimbledon or Trooping The Colour.
Before you consign the production to the mental dustbin marked “historical curiosity”, however, I should perhaps remind you that The Mousetrap is so much more than some dusty old theatrical anachronism. The play’s current director Geoff Bullen is keen to make this very point.”The characters are not just cardboard cut-outs,” he says of the production. “It’s wonderfully structured – right 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.
The Mousetrap is appearing at St Martin’s Theatre seven days a week. More information about the production can be found here.
For information on other great theatre productions in London, please click here.