Bloody good bygone era fun

2012-02-03 13:12

Consider that the year Dame Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap made its stage debut it was a contemporary play.

Set in 1952 it dealt with the issues of the day, it references – albeit obliquely – World War Two, which had ended just seven years before. It also captures the widespread social displacement and its accompanying discomfort brought by the war.

In this way the characters are both products of their time and of Christie’s particular oeuvre.

Fast forward 60 years into the future, The Mousetrap is still putting bums on seats on London’s West End, and any play that can keep the theatre full is worth celebrating. So, this year, as part of the production’s diamond anniversary celebrations, 60 countries around the world have been given the licence to put on a version.

South Africa is one of those 60 and this spruced up Mousetrap is directed by Alan Swerdlow, who has, as he puts it, seen it anew and simply freshened the bloom that has never really faded.

The Mousetrap is a classic whodunit, a quaint period piece. No-one wants to see classics revved up with Twitter and iPads, and in the case of this particular piece, both would be disasterous to its storytelling mojo. After all, the whole plot pivots on the eight people at Monkswell Manor being cut off from the world by the snow – and a cut telephone wire.

The eight fit neatly into what any fan of traditional crime fiction as typified by Christie would expect. The earnest young couple (Clyde Berning and Sarah Richard) trying to make a go of a new enterprise, in this case a guesthouse; the impossible-to-please old woman (Clare Marshall) who harkens back to a time when everyone knew their place; the camp young man (Matthew Lotter) hiding something; the bluff ­ex-military man (Robert Fridjhon); the mysterious Englishwoman who lives abroad (Bronwyn Leigh); the shady foreigner (Mark Rayment); and the copper (Ashley Dowds) who sorts the homicidal maniacs from his victims.

Set in the lounge of the guesthouse the opening scene includes a radio broadcast about the murder of a woman in London. None of the guests take much notice of the case, but when a young policeman arrives on the scene to tell them that whoever did that woman in has designs on doing in someone at the guesthouse too, tensions rise.

Christie’s play is based on a short story she wrote, Three Blind Mice, which is in turn based on a real case of child abuse that took place in 1945 on a farm in England.

The story has never been published in the UK as it gives away the identity of the killer. And keeping the secret of the killer’s identity has been crucial to the play’s longevity, so traditionally at the end of each night’s performance one of the actors asks the audience to take the killer’s identity to their grave – and in 60 years this request has been honoured by the thousands upon thousands of people who have seen it.

Some might argue that its long stage life can be attributed to the curiosity of London’s tourists, but there’s also the allure of nostalgia and, as CSI’s popularity proves, everyone loves a juicy murder to solve.

Swerdlow’s celebratory restaging of The Mousetrap – which was last staged in South Africa more than a decade ago – is good bloody fun. Bodies in the drawing room, red herrings and human foibles, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the hunt for motive, means and opportunity. And it’s a rare chance to exercise your “little grey cells” – which are all that you and the cast have to catch a killer.

»<strong> The Mousetrap is on at Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre until February 26. To book 0 011 511 1818. </strong>

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