65 Years of The Mousetrap

Theatre and Performance
November 24, 2017

Curator of Printed Books and Manuscripts, Beverley Hart, celebrates 65 years of The Mousetrap in London’s West End.

The age of 65 has until recently been associated in the UK with retirement, but one West End veteran shows no signs of putting its feet up any time soon. The Mousetrap, Agatha Christie’s most famous play, reaches this milestone on 25 November 2017.

Cover for The Mousetrap written by Agatha Christie (1891-1976), c.1952, S.1017-1995

The play was originally broadcast on BBC radio on 30 May 1947 as an 80th birthday present for Queen Mary, the wife of King George V. It was first entitled Three Blind Mice, or, Monkswell Manners (a pun on its setting at Monkswell Manor) as the original prompt book, held by the V&A, shows. This change for the expanded stage version avoided a clash with a play of the same name. Its new title alluded to The Murder of Gonzago, the play-within-the-play in Hamlet, wittily re-named ‘The Mousetrap’ by the prince for its purpose of ensnaring his fratricidal uncle, Claudius.

The ‘three blind mice’ motif recurs throughout the play, in the form of melodic snatches of the gruesome nursery rhyme. The prompt copy, which served the production for twelve years, features, among the many doodles and in-jokes, numerous cartoon figures of mice. Interspersed with more traditional prompt markings – lighting and sound cues, and actors’ moves – are sketches and cartoons indicating the potential tedium of sitting in the prompt corner during a long (in this case, epic) run. In addition to the prompt book mice, there appear various corny visual jokes, and the repeated caricature of a woman sporting Dame Edna-type spectacles.

Sketches of cat and mice in the margins of the prompt book for The Mousetrap, S.1017-1995

By the time of the fiftieth anniversary, in 2002, the prompt book was looking a little sorry for itself. To the rescue came Mathew Prichard, Christie’s grandson, who had been given the rights to the play as a ninth birthday present, and kindly underwrote the cost of conserving the typescript to make it displayable at the Theatre Museum, the predecessor of the current V&A department. The script may now be handled (gently) and the formerly tattered pages turned without causing further damage. It is not a complete facelift as, true to its history as a working document, it still bears the evidence of its theatrical history.

The Mousetrap is refreshed with a new cast once a year, but the original Detective Sergeant Trotter and Mollie Ralston, proprietor of the manor, were played by Richard (later Lord) Attenborough, and his wife Sheila Sim. One member of the cast has remained a constant over the decades: the actor Deryck Guyler, who died in 1999, recorded the original radio news broadcast heard during the play. The sole surviving serving prop from 1952 is the mantel clock, but the V&A holds the prop gun used in the early years of the production. All this is mercilessly parodied by Tom Stoppard in the play-within-the-play in The Real Inspector Hound in which the lady-who-does at Muldoon Manor, Mrs Drudge, answers the telephone with the words “Lady Muldoon’s country residence one morning in early spring”.

Poster featuring the original cast of The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie starring Sheila Sim and Richard Attenborough. Ambassador’s Theatre, 25 November 1952, S.69-2008.

Its longevity was not predictable. The author herself had imagined it might run for a few months. Its regional pre-West End outing had been patchily received, causing the producer Peter Saunders to work with the playwright on editing out some of the jokes, to save it from falling between the categories of thriller and comedy-thriller.

The Mousetrap has taken on a life and mythology of its own (such as the rumour of the vengeful cabbie taking revenge for a stingy tip by revealing the name of the villain to a theatregoer.) As long ago as 1960 a winning entry in a New Statesman limerick competition read:

I think it was Agatha who
Set a Mousetrap in ‘fifty-and-two
Today they still run it;
When asked how she dunnit,
She answered ‘I haven’t a clue’.

Silk playbill produced for the 1,000th performance of The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie, Ambassadors Theatre, 22 April 1955, S.343-1978

However, you don’t get to be the Queen of Crime and author of the longest-running play in the world by being clueless (in any sense). In a letter auctioned in 1992 Christie replied to a fan, who feared her novels might promote crime, by suggesting that the detective story is a “direct descendant of the old morality play, representing a battle against evil and a combat on behalf of the innocent”.

The play has been produced all over the world, and the London cast once gave a special performance at Wormwood Scrubs, on a set built by the inmates. On this occasion it did, albeit inadvertently, promote crime when two prisoners took advantage of this dramatic distraction to make good their escape.

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Who was the original light designer for the play in 1952?

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