LONDON — Has anyone built a better “Mousetrap”?
Britons just getting over celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee are now in the throes of another: the 60th anniversary of the world’s longest-running play, “The Mousetrap” by Agatha Christie, England’s “queen of crime” (or, with less royal pretension, “duchess of death”).
What began as a BBC radio drama, at a time when postwar Brits carried around ration books and stared agog at television sets, has since become a West End phenomenon that shows no sign of stopping, though critics carp about signs of age. Sunday marks the official birthday, achieved after more than 25,000 performances, 400 actors and two dozen directors.
At this point, the play practically runs on its own inertia and reputation, on the must-see list for visitors to London along with the crown jewels and Madame Tussauds’ waxworks.
But Stephen Waley-Cohen, its producer since 1994, brushes off suggestions that only foreign tourists are keeping the world’s most famous theatrical whodunit alive. On average, he says, half the audience is British, even if it seems there could hardly be anyone left on this island who hasn’t made the pilgrimage to St. Martin’s Theatre, near Trafalgar Square.
“In 60 years, only about 10 million people have seen it,” Waley-Cohen says. “That’s about the number that watch a good episode of ‘Downton Abbey’ or ‘The X Factor.’ So there’s huge numbers of people who’ve never seen it in Britain.”
Proof of that has followed the unusual decision, as part of the diamond anniversary extravaganza, to mount productions of “The Mousetrap” in regional theaters across the country this year, something that the original producer, Peter Saunders, shied away from doing for fear it would eat into the West End box-office receipts.
Those performances have attracted strong audiences — sellouts, in some cases — yet business for the London show is up compared with last year, Waley-Cohen said. In all, 60 new productions were licensed around the world, including the U.S., China, Russia and Mozambique, where the play was put on by an American school.
More serious are complaints that “The Mousetrap” is a tired museum piece squatting on valuable real estate, space that would be better used to promote new works or promising writers desperate for a crack at the big time. An irritated director once called for “The Mousetrap” to be abolished by an act of Parliament.
“The St. Martin’s Theatre is one of the most attractive playhouses in the West End, and it is tragic that it has been filled with such tedious tosh for so long,” drama critic Charles Spencer wrote in the Daily Telegraph last year. “It is time the curtain came down on this fusty whodunit and the huge profits generated by the piece over the years were plowed into exciting new plays that have something to say about the way we live now.”
But Waley-Cohen challenges critics to cite an example of a play that had both buzz and backing but that failed to make it on to the West End for lack of a venue. And do audiences really need another movie-turned-musical to go with “Shrek,” “The Lion King,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” the just-closed “Ghost” and new arrival “The Bodyguard”?
Certainly the current West End lineup doesn’t hurt for critically acclaimed productions. Veteran actors Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins star in Samuel Beckett’s “All That Fall,” while Tony Award winner Mark Rylance plays Olivia in a hilarious all-male production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” Rupert Everett has captivated audiences as an emotionally devastated Oscar Wilde in David Hare’s “The Judas Kiss,” scheduled to open in the West End in January after a brief tour.
Christie, whose detective novels have sold more than 2 billion copies worldwide, making her the bestselling author of all time, once enjoyed an even greater hold on the London theater scene than she does now. She is the only female playwright to have had three of her works running in the West End simultaneously. (She died in 1976.)
No one, though, anticipated the record-breaking success of “The Mousetrap,” including Christie herself, who thought it would last about a year. She famously gave the rights to the play to her grandson as a present for his 9th birthday, little suspecting that it would set him up handsomely for life.
The radio version, “Three Blind Mice,” was written for Queen Mary and re-dubbed “The Mousetrap” for its stage premiere Nov. 25, 1952. Winston Churchill was prime minister, and Harry Truman president. (Fans joke that the play actually dates back to Shakespeare’s day: In “Hamlet,” an acting troupe puts on a show called “The Mouse-trap,” which the Danish prince declares “a knavish piece of work.”)
Like Christie’s books, the play assembles a small cast of characters, this time in a snowbound guesthouse, among whom the bodies — and the coincidences — soon pile up like cars in a fog. After the killer is unmasked and the curtain comes down, the actor who plays the detective asks the audience to keep “whodunit” a secret, a corny but effective gimmick that began decades before the words “spoiler alert” were first uttered. (A fight to make Wikipedia remove its revelation of the ending has proved futile, however.)
“We are constantly surprised by the wonderful reaction at the curtain call,” says Michael Fenner, a member of the current cast, which changes yearly. “We do often get shouts of approbation…. It always works.”
Mathew Prichard, Christie’s lucky grandson, agrees with his grandmother’s own assessment that the “The Mousetrap” appeals because it contains something for everyone. “There are comparatively few plays in the West End which are suitable for all members of the family,” Prichard says. “It’s comparatively short. It’s got good humor in it, terrific suspense, a great twist at the end.”
Perhaps most entitled to complain about “The Mousetrap’s” durability are the movie studio executives who, decades ago, bought the rights to a film version, which can only be made six months after the theatrical run ends. They’re still waiting — if, of course, they’re still alive.