I was having a drink with a colleague when one of his friends entered the bar. ‘X’ is an actor my friend said. The newcomer smiled and apologised for not being able to stay longer as he was already late for rehearsal. Innocently I asked what he was currently playing and with a straight face he replied: ‘The Mousetrap’
It is not in my nature to be rude to strangers but I enquired why any company of players would need to rehearse their part in a play that seemed to have been running since the dawn of time. The reason, he explained to me, was that each actor takes on more than one part to try and keep the production fresh.
I make no excuses for the fact that I always prefer live theatre to film. However I have never, ever, seen The Mousetrap. I once tried to book seats on the basis that this theatrical treasure should be seen at least once before I died. It might appear that even this might not be so as every time I tried to book seats the box office informed me that the house was full. A quick check amongst those that know about these things told me that it had become a ‘must see’ for tourists and that coachloads of Americans, Japanese and students of English as a second language were already way ahead of me in the queue.
For the life of me I can’t see why. There are no hit numbers, no semi nude dancing girls, no one hit wonder pop stars resurrecting their career, no disgraced American film star searching for thespian redemption and no 3D special effects.
It has become an institution. But as Michael Flanders once remarked – ‘who wants to live in an institution?’ Quite a lot of people apparently. I often wonder what that relative of Agatha Christie feels as the production enters its 60th year, who was bequeathed the rights to the play in her will once its theatrical run ended. Still, like Mr Micawber, waiting for something to turn up. More of Flanders & Swann here.
The Mousetrap is I believe a standard ‘whodunit’ set in an old, rambling English house with a collection of odd residents, even odder relatives and a butler. The English do these sort of crime dramas very well. They used to be the staple of many provincial repertory companies and the stuff of afternoon black and white movies on Sunday afternoon TV. There is very little suspense, very little action and the murderer is usually the one you least suspect or even more probably the one you suspected from the very start. But when its raining and you’ve had a good dinner, its just the thing to doze to in your favourite armchair.
Tom Stoppard lampooned this style brilliantly in The Real Inspector Hound. I made my one act play debut as Birdboot in a One Act Play Festival when I worked for National Westminster Bank. Memoirs of my time here can be read at: Notes from the Stage Manager’s Box.
We rehearsed for weeks and the only hitch was when the director asked if anyone could supply some. Not having a clue what he was on about we all grunted and said we had no such thing at home but would ask around. One evening someone actually asked what an anti-macassar was – they are pieces of linen placed over the backs and arms of armchairs and settees to prevent staining. A favourite of the Victorian male was macassar oil, hence the need for the anti-macassars. Still available at Amazon:
When I mentioned this to my mother she gave me a pile of the things. It did give an air of authenticity to the set.
After that rehearsals went fine until the night of the production. We had never rehearsed with a real box of Black Magic Dark Chocolates which is how the play begins with two critics taking their seats. On being offered a chocolate I picked up the chewiest piece of montelimar I could find and spent the next two minutes with my teeth clenched and only able to mutter the immortal line: ‘Where’s Higgs?’ whilst my partner repeated his lines until I had swallowed the offending object.
No one in the audience noticed. No one seemed to be aware – not even the adjudicator. I am sure that nothing like this has ever happened to the cast of The Mousetrap.
This page and more in a similar vein comes from a collection in my eBook So! You want to be British.