Let me take you back to a different time, long before the age of social media and iPhones, long before Covid made such a massive impact on our lives. It’s 1952, Winston Churchill is prime minister, Stalin is the head of Russia, television shuts off at 10.20pm every day and most essential food is rationed. 5 years on from premiering as a short radio play entitled ‘Three Blind Mice’, Agatha Christie’s ‘The Mousetrap’ opened on 25th November at London’s Ambassadors Theatre following a short UK tour and no one could ever have expected that it would go on to become the world’s longest running theatre production.
This world famous ‘Whodunnit’ tells the story of a group of strangers staying at the remote Monkswell Manor Guest House, owned by Giles and Mollie Ralston, during a terrible snowstorm. When a police sergeant arrives with the news that there is a murderer on the loose and that the killer is amongst the group in the house, he launches an investigation into the lives of everyone and the detective must find the killer before it is too late.
Some call it a British theatrical institution
Some call it theatre’s best kept secret
But do you know the history of this famous stage production?
In its 69-year history, The Mousetrap has called two West End venue’s home and played over 28,000 performances. The original cast included Martin Miller, Jessica Spencer, Aubrey Dexter, Mignon O’Doherty, Allen McClelland and John Paul alongside Richard Attenborough in one of his early-stage roles as the Inspector and his wife Sheila Sim as guest house owner Mollie Ralston.
Continuity and tradition are incredibly important to The Mousetrap. Up until the show’s enforced closure due to the pandemic in 2020, the show had not missed a single performance since 1952, even when the set needed repairing or when the production moved from the Ambassadors theatre to the St Martin’s Theatre next door. Through all of the changes, one prop has remained in the production from that very first show in 1952; the clock that stands on the mantelpiece.
Photograph: Rex Features
Over 460 performers have appeared in The Mousetrap, with actor David Raven holding a record for performing 4575 shows as Major Metcalfe alongside the late actress Nancy Seabrooke who spent 15 years working as an understudy on the production. Back then, it was commonplace for performers to stay with the production for an extended period, but nowadays, the cast is changed every six months in order to keep the production fresh. Whilst hundreds of performers and come and gone from the West End productions over the years, The Mousetrap has made history by having an original ‘cast member’ survive all the cast changes since its opening night. The late Deryck Guyler can still be heard, via a recording, reading the news bulletin in the play to this present day.
There is a rule in place that states that only one other production of The Mousetrap can run in conjunction to the west end show, but that has not stopped the production from becoming a global success. The show premiered in Ontario, Canada in 1977 and became the countries longest running show, playing over 9000 performances in. 26 years before closing in 2004. In China, Agatha Christie is ‘bigger than Shakespeare’ and her plays are regularly performed in Chinese. In 2010, The Mousetrap played 12 performances at the Lyceum Theater of Shanghai, with subtitles in Chinese, making it the first time a British company had been invited to perform at the venue.
credit – Oxfordian Kissuth
One of the biggest and most well-known traditions of ‘The Mousetrap’ is the act of keepingthe secret. The main selling point and the most interesting part of a good murder mystery is trying to work out who the killer is and having that knowledge by the end of the story. The Mousetrap may be one of the best known ‘whodunnits’ in the world, but it is also one of the most secretive. You would think that after 69 years on the stage, the secret would be public knowledge by now, but that is not the case. At the end of each performance, the audience is asked to ‘preserve the tradition of The Mousetrap by keeping the secret locked in their hearts’. Getting to be in on the famous secret is a big factor in the show’s popularity.
Five interesting facts about The Mousetrap
- Despite the fact that it is one of her most famous pieces, The Mousetrap was not one of Agatha Christie’s favourites. Her favourite play of hers was ‘Witness for The Prosecution’. She believed that The Mousetrap would run for eight months at most, not even she could predict its success
- The play was originally called ‘Three Blind Mice’ but that name had already been used in a production by theatre producer Emile Littler, so a new name was needed before the show could premiere. It was Christie’s son in Law, Anthony Hicks, who came up with the show’s new title in reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which Hamlet cryptically calls the play depicting the murder of the king ‘The Mousetrap’.
- Nearly five years after the show opened in London, on September 13th 1957, The Mousetrap became the longest running straight play in the history of British Theatre, taking the record from Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit which played 1997 performances in the early 1940’s. In 2011, a Gloucestershire furniture restorer discovered a long-lost telegram, tucked behind a lingerie bill at the back of an 18thcentury desk that came from Agatha Christie’s estate. It read ‘Dear Agatha Christie, much as it pains me, I really must congratulate you on The Mousetrap breaking the long run record. All my good wishes, Noel Coward’. It would seem that even though it knocked his play off of the top spot in the record books, even the great Noel Coward could not deny The Mousetrap’s great success.
- In 1959, the show was performed at Wormwood Scrubs prison with 300 prisoners in attendance. Fifteen minutes before the show ended, it was discovered that two prisoners were missing, having escaped whilst everyone was distracted by the show. Both escapees were returned to prison only days later.
- On November 18th, 2012, The Mousetrap played its 25,000thperformance and celebrated its 60th A special charity performance was staged to mark the momentous occasion, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, perhaps best known for directing hit musical Mamma Mia! A host of household names starred in the charity show including Hugh Bonneville, Patrick Stewart, Julie Walters and Miranda Hart. The money raised by the performance was donated to The Mousetrap Theatre Projects Initiative, a charity set up in 1997 to help disadvantaged children experience live theatre.The cast of this special performance also unveiled a commemorative statue to Agatha Christie, who passed away on January 12th, 1976. The statue stands at the intersection of Cranbourn Street and Great Newport Street just up the road from the theatre and has become a must see for Christie fans.
Have you seen The Mousetrap yet?