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Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Mousetrap, 60 years old, and once adults-only

The Mousetrap: Agatha Christie’s adult masterpiece


About to enter its sixtieth anniversary year, "The Mousetrap" is steeped in gentility.  Yet it has a darker side, Christie's biographer, Laura Thompson, told The Telegraph.

When The Mousetrap premiered in Nottingham in October 1952, one month prior to its opening at the Ambassador’s Theatre, its author, Agatha Christie, took a modest view of its prospects. Despite the presence in the cast of Richard Attenborough, still the biggest name ever to feature in The Mousetrap, Christie believed that her play would run in the West End for about eight months.

So she would, undoubtedly, have been amazed by the fact that The Mousetrap is now sailing grandly into its 60th year, having transferred to the (admittedly tiny) St Martin’s Theatre in 1974. At the same time, she would have stood up to those who believe that the play now exists in a state of indefinite coma and should be put out of its misery.

The play that became a legend started life as a 30-minute piece for radio. In 1947 the BBC had the idea of presenting Queen Mary with a special broadcast for her 80th birthday. In staunchly middle-brow style, the Queen requested a new play by Agatha Christie.

The result was originally called Three Blind Mice (the stage title, that of the play-within-a-play in Hamlet, was the inspired idea of Christie’s son-in-law). Christie was always fascinated by nursery rhymes, by their lurking folkloric hint of the macabre: she herself, after all, wrote what might be called fairy tales for adults. So although her play was a classic thriller, its smooth surface concealed something deep and dark. Indeed that jolly joke The Mousetrap is underpinned by no less a theme than the catastrophic effects of childhood neglect.

The imponderable fate of unwanted children, a question that is taken to an extreme in The Mousetrap, always nagged away at Christie. Almost certainly this was because her own mother, the person whom she loved more than any other, was given away to an aunt at the age of nine and suffered a lifelong sense of rejection.

Nobody now thinks of The Mousetrap in terms of this central theme. Nevertheless for the first 10 years the play was billed as “for adults only”, and in truth its subject matter – interred though it is within the country-house murder genre – is extremely powerful.

This is typical of Agatha Christie. She is dismissed with tedious regularity as a mere purveyor of “animated algebra”, yet what really lies at the heart of her work is a clear-eyed understanding of the human condition, especially its baser side. She had no desire to parade that knowledge – her style is deceptively concrete – but it is there, all the time, guiding the geometry of her plots.

Even in The Mousetrap.

'The Mousetrap’ is at St Martin’s Theatre (0844 499 1515).
'Agatha Christie: An English Mystery’ by Laura Thompson (Headline, £8.99)

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