Posts Tagged ‘Agatha Christie’

The Mousetrap

July 30, 2012

Last week I went to see The Mousetrap, the Agatha Christie play that has been continuously performed in the West End for sixty years – more than double my lifetime.

It’s one of those things that I’ve always wanted to do and have always felt somewhat ashamed of not having done. It’s been around for such a long time, woven itself into the fabric of London, that how can one really call oneself a Londoner without seeing it? To my mind, it’s akin to not having heard the chimes of Big Ben, or standing on the wrong side of the escalator on the tube.

So I was very excited indeed to be going to see it at last. The trigger was thanks to a friend who – rather thrillingly – was playing one of the starring roles. It was particularly exciting as I went with a group of friends from primary school, plus a few other halves, so it felt quite like a school trip. There was a moment when I wondered whether we should be walking in a crocodile.

I had such a fun evening. It was a very entertaining play – by turns funny, fascinating and very frightening. At half-time I hadn’t a clue as to who the murderer was, but – typically – the husband did. And he was right too! I can’t quite believe he worked it out and now I worry that he is wasted in the world of architecture and should become a professional detective.

People complain that the play has aged badly, that it feels dated. Well of course it’s dated. It’s sixty years old. And so obviously the language is from the 1950s; the references to the wireless, to the Evening Standard being sold at half-past-three, to getting coke for the central heating are all “dated”. But I thought this only added to its charm. Apparently there was a time when they tried to update the language, but thank god now they’ve sensibly decided to leave it alone. A little bit of me felt a guilty pleasure at the thought of younger audience members being baffled by wireless not referring to the internet.


But amidst all this stuff that speaks of the fifties, the central concerns of the play are timeless. At its heart is a terrible case of child abuse. The horror of this is every bit as horrific today, the sort of dreadful event that takes over the newspapers for months and etches itself into everyone’s consciousness, a sort of common ground of awfulness. And surely the suspense and the frights are also timeless. Everyone screamed when a sinister gloved hand reached out form behind a door, and a friend spent most of the performance gripping on to neighbouring legs (one of which was mine) in terror.

The more I think about The Mousetrap, the more I think it is a kind of time warp. It’s astonishing to think that this play – this very same production, with the same lines in the same theatre, with the same props – has been performed without a break for sixty years. Admittedly, that’s not quite true. It swapped from the Ambassadors Theatre to next-door St Martin’s Theatre in 1974. And the set has changed twice – once in 1965 and 1999 – but really that’s a pretty impressive stream of continuity.

What struck me is that now people go to see it and cosy into its nostalgic setting – with the tweedy outfits, stone hot water bottles and corned beef – but when it was first performed, none of that was nostalgic, it was a portrayal of the current reality. It isn’t a re-imagined period drama, a la Downton Abbey, but the real shebang. I love the thought of it being performed, night after night, and people’s reactions to it gradually changing as the years slipped past. When was it that corned beef became old-fashioned? When did people stop disapproving of vacuuming in the afternoon?

It must be because it’s not a hammed-up period drama that it still works so well. The details are right because they were observed at the time, not reimagined decades later. Really, as the lights dim, you are stepping back into 1952, watching something that is exactly the same now as it was then.

What seals the time warp is the closing request from one of the actors. He steps forward from the line of bows and asks the audience to keep the secret of The Mousetrap to themselves. So you leave knowing the whodunit but you are bound to secrecy. You feel it would be morally wrong – having been asked so nicely to preserve the tradition of mystery – to tell anyone. And so, just like its first performance sixty years ago, and every performance since, really very few people who go to see it (at least for the first time) know who the murderer is.

Well I couldn’t have enjoyed my little trip back to 1952 more. I hope it continues to run, as now I long for the day when I can take the next generation and tell them about when I first went to see it many years ago. I wonder how much more will be deemed “dated’” by then? Will there still be telephone cords and newspapers or even big old houses? Well for anyone who despairs at the things we are losing as we march ever forwards in the name of progress, rest assured it’s all there in The Mousetrap. Really, this little portal to the 1950s is one of London’s best-kept secrets.


July 12, 2010

Having spent a couple of days in Florence’s nostalgia and searing heat, I am now happily stationed in a pretty villa in the Tuscan hills, surrounded by undulating shades of green.

While I am here, I will be taking part in an epic game of Cluedo.

Now this isn’t the Cluedo that immediately springs to mind – the board game involving Mrs White in the Library with the Lead Piping. This is a far more devious game.

In this Cluedo, everybody writes down an object which can be found somewhere in the villa or nearby – a weapon – and also a location, again in the villa or nearby. Then we all draw slips of paper out of various hats – the name of someone else here, a weapon and a location. Over the week’s holiday it is our mission to murder that person in that location using that weapon.

Now, luckily, I won’t actually have to club someone over the head with a bottle of sun lotion under the sun umbrella until they die. To kill somebody, one has to get them to take hold of the object, in the correct location. So, I might need to make a certain person eat spaghetti in the shower, or take a nail file into the swimming pool, or carry a book into the rosemary bush … Then I just need to shout ‘Die die die’, and I will have succeeded in my mission. I would then take on their assassination task and continue until there is only one survivor.

At first glance this might have no more literary resonance than an overambitious murder mystery novel. The scene is set – a group of friends in luxurious isolation in Tuscany – but rather than one sinister murder, there are a spate of them, and several different perpetrators.

There are, indeed, several red herrings – essential to any murder mystery worth its salt. Whenever anyone asks anyone else to pass them anything, eyebrows are raised, breath is held – is it really ok to pick up the blueberry jam or will that moment of holding it, while seated at the breakfast table, be the death of you? The seemingly innocent, ‘Let’s go for a wander into town,’ becomes thick with the insinuation of being lured into the correct location, especially if you set off carrying an incongruous object – ‘would you mind carrying this onion for me?’ Twitchy paranoia is quick to take hold.

So yes, it is a little bit like reading an Agatha Christie. A murder is going to take place and one’s eyes are peeled for clues, so much so that it is easy to be taken in by red herrings, to treat every slightly suspicious circumstance as a serious threat. The air is filled with expectation – when’s it going to happen, who’s going to die first, who’s going to be the most canny killer?

But it’s also a bit like writing a story.

You see, you have picked up three pieces of paper, which provide the very rudiments of plot. And somehow, you have to engineer everything to make that situation a likely one. A narrative must be constructed to plausibly conclude with that person in that place holding that object.

It has to be a convincing narrative. If you were to just suddenly ask someone to carry a bowl of spaghetti into the shower they’d never do it. They’d be too suspicious. So, over the next few days, you need to weave the background – the back story. Perhaps you might place a bet with the victim that food tastes completely different depending on where it’s eaten. Or, you might try to get them to eat pizza in the pool first – as a decoy – so that spaghetti in the shower seems like a natural successor.

It needs to be convincing and it needs to be subtle. The victim can’t know what you’re planning on doing to them, just as, when writing, whatever’s going to happen can’t be too obvious. And all the better if something intriguing happens along the way. I suppose, even if you failed to get them to eat spaghetti in the shower, it would be quite a jolly Bildungsroman to seem them eat pizza in the pool, tiramisu on the roof of the car and garlic bread while doing a handstand.

So we’re all here, idling around a swimming pool, spinning our own fictions. One person is suggesting to everyone that it would be a good idea to go into town, and to take a Frisbee along. Another person is suggesting a walk in the hills, with a pot of coffee. And someone else is trying to get a certain person to go and see what’s poking out from behind the rose bush.

I suppose the only problem is that everyone is weaving their own story and so, of course, they get tangled together. Everyone has a different main character, a different objective, conflicting narrative arcs. It is getting rather knotted and messy.

What we need is some kind of omniscient narrator to create a masterly web of intrigue, drawing out particular threads at different times, knotting strands together to make mini climaxes, letting something hang free when our attention should be elsewhere.

Instead, the week will be spent with everyone trying to engineer very peculiar situations indeed. And everyone doing it at once. Brits abroad … I wonder what the neighbouring Italians will think.