Trust no one in classic whodunit

KIMBERLEY ROTHWELL
Last updated 05:00 13/11/2012
The Moustrap
JAMES MORGAN

Suspicious: Robert Alexander, left, and Justin Smith, right, as Mr Paravicini and Detective Sergeant Trotter in The Mousetrap.

The Mousetrap
Telephone manner: Christy Sullivan plays Mollie Ralston.

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In the tweed-wearing, buttoned-down laced-up world of Agatha Christie, everyone looks suspicious.

Everyone has a backstory, a secret. Everyone is a potential murderer. No more so perhaps than in The Mousetrap.

For 60 years, Agatha Christie's play has ticked over night after night in London's St Martin's Theatre. A classic whodunit, it revolves around a manor house in the English countryside as a snow storm blows in. Mysterious strangers arrive, a murder takes place, fingers are pointed.

To mark the 60th anniversary of the play's opening run in 1952, 60 professional productions are being taken worldwide, including an Australasian tour with 12 performances in Wellington from November 15.

The story is set in post-World War II England, where rationing is still taking place and the class system has been given a good shake-up by the two wars.

It brings together characters who are taking refuge at Monkswell Manor, a guesthouse run by the young and very earnest Giles and Mollie Ralston.

There's the cantankerous Mrs Boyle, played by Offspring's Linda Cropper, the hyperactive Christopher Wren, a vivacious Italian gentlemen whose car has been forced into a snow drift, a quiet and retired Major, and a young woman who lives most of the year in Mallorca. Throw in a skiing detective played by Underbelly's Justin Smith, and a twist that the audience are asked to keep "locked in their hearts" and you have the world's longest-running play.

But despite The Guardian's claim that by 2002, 10 million people had seen The Mousetrap, it seems none of the cast of the Australasian production had before auditioning for it.

Gus Murray, who plays Giles Ralston, said: "I guess we knew the history of it; that it was the world's longest-running play and the secrecy that goes with it which is part of the fun. All my friends, instantly as soon as I got the play asked: who does it?"

The Australasian production is about as close to the West End version of the play as you can imagine. The set is almost identical - the wood-panelled drawing room of Monkswell Manor, with five entry points that characters keep dashing in and out of. The attention to detail extends to the letters in the roll-top desk, which are addressed to Mr G Ralston, to the watch on Giles' wrist, and the fabrics of the costumes which were sourced in London. Murray's costume, though you don't see them, includes suspenders under his handknitted jersey.

"Doing the hair and the costumes force you to hold yourself in a certain way, and part of the perceived uptightness about people of the time."

But don't expect a cookie-cutter production. Cropper said that even though the play had been performed by hundreds of different actors over its 60 years, the cast and director Gary Young still got the chance to put their own stamp on it. "No two actors are the same, just by the virtue that they are different people.

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"The types in this play are very clearly written, especially some of them are very archetypal if you like, but by virtue of the fact it's our production, it's our chemistry."

This version seems a lot funnier than its British counterpart. Getting most of the laughs is Travis Cotton, who plays Christopher Wren, an enthusiastic young man with a mysterious past who bounds about the stage being "a whore for laughs". Said Cropper: "There's a farcical element that we play with."

So why has The Mousetrap endured for so long?

"There's a huge love of the genre, the whodunit, and Agatha Christie literally wrote the book on it," said Cropper. "Poirot, Miss Marple, all that stuff just rates its socks off.

"There's a huge audience built in because of her books and the genre, and it's got this whole kind of amazing vibe because it's the longest-running play in the world."

Murray reckoned the play was just good fun. "People enjoy the intrigue and suspense, and also I find for me it's enjoyable as a snapshot of post-war England at that time, with rationing going on and people trying to rebuild their lives after the devastation.

"It's really interesting."

In the 60th year of the play's run, it had resisted being tinkered with, and was still set in that post-war era for good reason, said Cropper. "The amount of people who have said to me - and it's absolutely my feeling as well - if it wasn't set in 1952 in the English winter in a manor house, people would feel really diddled.

"It's not the sort of the thing you can set in say Perth in 2001 or in the 1980s, it very much sits in its period and it's a little time piece. People love that."

Director Young said the plot wouldn't work if it were set in modern times. "One mobile phone and the whole thing is blown."

It may not have 3-D virtual autopsies, forensic evidence or any of the gimmicks that modern crime shows use but it does have a killer twist that few people guess.

Said Murray: "Pretty much every night when the killer is revealed and certain things are revealed, there are audible gasps in the audience. "That's amazing.

"I haven't been in many plays where you get many reactions like that, which is so much fun for us."

Kimberley Rothwell flew to Melbourne courtesy of the play's promoter.

-  The Mousetrap, St James Theatre, November 15-24.

- The Dominion Post

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