The Mousetrap, by Agatha Christie. Directed by Paul Mullins. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
". . . so difficult to prove a negative."
Anthony Roach, Carol Halstead, Andrew Weems, Julia Ogilvie, Kieran Mulcare, Gretchen Hall, Tom Ferguson, William Haden; photo: Brian Jones
For Agatha Christie fans there is a credo: There is nothing like this Dame. On closer inspection of her play "The Moustrap" however, there is something else: Look no further, be still.This is your journey's end, friend. Christie's play opened in London on November 25, 1952 and it is still running today, the same production, not a revival. Millions of people have seen it. I heard an elderly woman tell her great-granddaughter that she had seen the third performance and was still attending a performance of it at least once a decade. She had taken her daughter, granddaughter and now her great-grandchild to see it.
According to "The Bedside, Bathtub and Armchair Companion to Agatha Christie" the play has been translated into twenty-two languages, presented in forty-one countries and more than four and a half million people have seen it at least once. There is a mousetrap club for actors who have appeared in the play. I have seen eleven productions of the play in my lifetime, including the original production back in the 1950s and the play never gets old, or worn out, or dreary. I also don't remember "whodunit" so each time there is that thwack of surprise that makes a good mystery something you can always come back to.
I do have some questions that clearly Dame Agatha never thought about clearing up. At the end of Act One there is a dead body on stage. Act Two picks up ten minutes later but there is never a body on stage; where did it go? Did someone shove it into a nearby freezer? I want to know. If there is a police person in the house called Monkswell Manor why would he give the murderer into the custody of a young woman who vaguely promises that the killer will be unconscious soon? I want to know. Those are just two of my questions that cannot be answered. Why, if Dame Agatha is the best crime writer of the entire 20th century, are there any holes at all in the longest running play in history. Really, longer than any twenty productions of any William Shakespeare play.
I really love this play. Published first in 1950 as the title tale in a collection of nine classic Christie stories as "Three Blind Mice", it provides a few elements drawn from other authors' works. The killer here whistles the familiar tune whenever the homicidal urge appears, just as the killer did in Emlyn Williams very popular thriller play "Night Must Fall" back in 1935 where the killer always hummed or sang "Mighty Lak a Rose" while doing the deed. The newly discussed McGuffin, a technique used by Alfred Hitchcock in all of his films of presenting an early clue to distract you from the real crime, appears in "The Mousetrap" when the newly married couple furtively hide two boxes with as much visible criminal guilt as can be imagined. Christie draws in these and other elements of what other authors created to form a most cohesive crime melodrama. And what is more, it is fun to watch.
The cast on stage in the Dorset Theatre Festival's production would make the Dame proud to have written this stagework (it has never been filmed as the rights are owned under a sale agreement that no film may be made until six months after the original production has closed). Gretchen Hall and Will Haden play Mollie and Giles Ralston, the owners of Monkswell Manor. They are a beautiful couple and they perform with clarity and a sharpness that draws you into their "still in love" spell. Hall has the perfect British combination of perky breasts and a perfect hair-do, a blonde version of the lacquered Ann Miller look. Haden gives each line and gesture a certain stamina that almost always provokes a pairing of admiration and resentment. It makes him the perfect suspect.
Their first guests at the inn are Christopher Wren, played with a twitchiness I haven't seen in years by Kieran Mulcare, Mrs. Boyle who is given the tart crispiness of a green apple sorbet by Carol Halstead, Major Metcalf who, as played by Tom Ferguson, is a perfect Christmas goose on a spit for most the play, Miss Casewell whose well-suited manliness is criminally wrought by Julia Ogilvie and Mr. Paravicini, an unanticipated make-up wearing Italian snake-oil salesman of a man played to the edgy hilt by Andrew Weems. After a phone-call from police headquarters this troupe of unlikely bedfellows is joined by Detective Sergeant Trotter whose British blonde beauty is made manifest by Anthony Roach.
So here we have eight people who under normal circumstances would not be found even in the waiting room of one of the major railroad lines in England at the same time, all trapped together for 24 hours. A murder is under investigation when a second murder takes a place and third one is announced. It is a Christie chiller. In this production, director Paul Mullins sometimes sacrifices suspence for laughs and sometimes provides visuals that are meant to distract when all they do is harp on the worst (or best if you prefer) of the Hammer Films Vincent Price classics.
On one of the most peculiar sets I've ever seen as designed by Debra Booth, the play moves inexorably in the direction set by the author leading to the multiple surprise endings that never answer my questions (above) yet provide a very satisfactory conclusion to the evening. The man behind me, reviewing the cast list before the show began, provided a certainty about the killer that was proven to be one hundred percent wrong, and that delighted me almost as much as the company did in this lovely, silly, over-the-top production of a modern classic. Keep your :Hamlet," your "Titus Andronicus," your "Julius Caesar." When it comes to death on stage, give me "The Mousetrap" any day.
The Mousetrap closes the Dorset season with performances through August 30 at the Dorset Playhouse on Cheney Road in Dorset, Vermont. For information and tickets call the box office at 802-867-2223 or go on line to their website at www.dorsettheatrefestival.org.