On Theatre

“Trad” theatre can still feel fresh

West End strikes a balance between keeping their spine and nostalgic appeal, whilst avoiding creakiness

Illustration of Anne Mcelvoy's face

This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Agatha Christie had modest aspirations for The Mousetrap when her murder mystery opened in 1952. Her producer predicted a 14-month run, but the great literary stiletto-wielder replied, “It won’t run that long. Eight months perhaps.”

By 1957, it had become the longest-running play in the West End. Christie received a telegram from Noël Coward saying: “Much as it pains me I really must congratulate you … ”

Seven decades on, it has become the hardiest perennial on the boards, having just passed its seventieth anniversary (factoring in the two-year gap during the pandemic). It has been seen by some ten million people, all earnestly implored not to give away the twisty ending.

It is also the classic template for West End theatre dusting down “trad” works for older audiences and striking a balance between keeping their spine and nostalgic appeal, whilst avoiding creakiness.

England in the rationing era of the early 1950s is integral to the play. Monkswell Manor is the snow-bound hotel where hapless newlyweds, Mollie and Giles Ralston (Rachel Summers and Christopher Bonwell) are struggling to run a guesthouse in a snowdrift (a weather check shows that Christie was on point: Berkshire still had these in the early fifties, though possibly not policemen on skis — some suspension of disbelief is required).

The guests exhibit Fawlty Towers-levels of eccentricity, with a side-helping of homicide. There’s a tricky matron who believes that age gives her the rights to the fireside seat and control of the radio volume, and an oddball architect called Christopher Wren who is camp in the asexual Christie way in the text and played here as a nervy closet homosexual — which is probably what she meant us to understand.

Ian Talbot’s production, which I saw at St Martin’s Theatre, follows Peter Saunders’s original with small refreshes to period dress — enough to be more pleasing to the eye than the drab wardrobes of the rationing era, not so much as to yank the cast out of the era: part of the play’s charm is that we check in to the world of post-war discomforts, with references to spivs, nursery food and days, and a log fire which then glows eerily when the lights go out.

When Christie wrote her story, the war was only just in the rear-view mirror. Distrust of the flashy foreigner stalks her writing. Mr Paravicini, whose car has overturned in the snow, arrives looking like an opera buffa comedy villain in wig and rouge, one of Christie’s Grand Guignol treatments of exotic continentals, a trope nicely sent up here for the overtone of Little Englander-ism. “How long have you lived in Italy?” asks the officious Sergeant Trotter of Miss Casewell, who explains with some froideur that she resides in Mallorca.

One aspect which surprised me as a latecomer to this play is that, beyond the Cluedo-esque plot and drawing room comedy, the backdrop to the murder hunt is so fiercely nasty. It is a tale based on a story Christie picked up from her scouring of newspaper clippings about fatal child cruelty, and it revolves around the corrosive consequences of unacknowledged trauma.

The Mousetrap is also the title of the play-within-a-play at court in Hamlet, a reference which makes a lot more sense when you get to the end of the story.

I do not fancy inviting the Curse of Agatha with a spoiler on that score. But suffice it to say that my daughter insists that she anticipated one twist, and I think the other one matters more, and we are still arguing fiercely about it and who saw what coming.

Christie’s world is fragile and deceptive

Coincidentally, the National Theatre has just fielded an elegant revival of Dodie Smith’s Dear Octopus, a neat exposition of the intertwining ties of memory, family frustrations and affinities and (in Smith’s case) the inter-war period, balanced between a modernity we can easily identify with and the world of guttering gaslight, as the Randolph children gather to celebrate the golden wedding anniversary of their parents.

Smith is best known for those numerous dalmatians, put on screen by Disney, and for I Capture the Castle which was also made into a film. Dear Octopus is a less familiar work set in the mid-1930s, but it has Smith’s observant twinkle and ability to merge profound feeling with concern for fish knives and dance cards.

Lindsay Duncan played Dora, the gloriously controlling matriarch and Malcolm Sinclair, her adaptable husband. The “octopus” is family and its swirling tentacles, enfolding the generations.

Parents slowly come to terms with the people their children have become, grown-up children need to re-establish the ties that bind them, but face their own futures, which we know will be under the shadow of another war.

In Smith’s world, family offers warmth, even if it can burn as well as comfort. Christie’s world is more fragile and deceptive, a place where “normality” usually hides something unpleasant. They are both proof that “trad” theatre, dusted down, can still delight.

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