See How They Run For Agatha’s Comfy Slippers

See How They Run For Agatha’s Comfy Slippers

It’s been seen by more than ten million people since it opened in London sixty years ago. When the rights to The Mousetrap were released, amateur theatres in Australia and New Zealand got the first bite of the very juicy cheese. It’s no mystery why professional producers have now taken over. Frank Hatherley reports that some theatres would kill to get the rights.

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When I saw Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap in 1978 I was amazed at its dusty English plainness. That night’s audience at London’s pretty, if severely cramped, St Martin’s Theatre was either from out-of-town or from way-overseas. When the murderer was revealed their gasps were multi-accented. I remember thinking: could this straightforward, subtlety-free, stock-character-filled whodunit really have been running since 1952? For 26 years?

So much for my brash young opinion. Next November 25 the same production will click past 60 years of unbroken performances, officially the longest running show of any kind in history.

The fortunate owner of this dramatic goldmine is Christie’s grandson Matthew Prichard, who received it as granny’s gift for his ninth birthday. Guided by ultra-savvy producer Peter Saunders, he moulded a legend — the Agatha Christie play that will never be made into a film; that is so famous you can’t possibly visit London’s West End without seeing it.

For 59 years Prichard permitted only one other production at any venue in the world to be running concurrently with London. But to celebrate a 2012 Diamond Jubilee, second only in historical significance to a certain regal someone, the rules of Mousetrap engagement were scrapped big time.

Australian and New Zealand amateur/community theatre groups were invited to stage productions of the iconic play during a strictly limited time frame — between 1 September 2011 and 31 December 2013. A stampede for licences began immediately.

Then it was announced that a major 60-week UK tour was to begin in September.

And, amazingly, 60 professional licences were to be made available worldwide. Soon productions were announcedin countries ranging from China to Venezuela.

A team of producers emerged as the Australian winners. Their Mousetrap, directed by Gary Young and with some excellent local actors (including Robert Alexander, Travis Cotton and Linda Cropper), will play four weeks in Sydney from June 30, then a week in Canberra, two in Perth, five in Melbourne and three in Adelaide, ending October 28.

This announcement brought to a screeching halt the many slower-moving amateur companies still queuing eagerly for their licences. Now they will just have to wait for the touring professionals to finish delivering the famous finale twist.

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As it happens, my local community theatre was among the first wave of amateur productions last November (production image at right). How soon did they apply?

“Oh, immediately,” says Barbara Hickey, current President of the Woy Woy Little Theatre on the NSW Central Coast. “We do an Agatha Christie every couple of years because she’s so popular. The very instant Dominie Drama released the amateur rights we just applied straight away.

The Mousetrap was a very enjoyable experience for us. We played to full houses the whole season. It was so thoroughly booked we put on two extra performances. We even let people in to see the dress rehearsal. Can you believe that? We had a full house for the dress rehearsal!”

“Mind you...” Her enthusiasm pauses. “I don’t think it’s a good play,” she confides. “It’s so old fashioned. People came for the curiosity value, I think. But the actors certainly enjoyed playing to full houses.”

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Louise Withers, co-producer of the professional tour, is unapologetic. “It’s absolutely normal that once the professional licence is out all amateur licences are withdrawn,” she says. “It’s to make sure the market isn’t oversupplied.

“We’re very proud that ours is an Australian production with an Australian Cast and Australian design team.”

Is she nervous about the play being considered ‘old fashioned’?

“Not at all,” she declares. “In fact I think that’s to be totally celebrated. It’s lovely to be able to go into a theatre and, while you haven’t seen the play before, to a degree you know what to expect — a true ‘drawing room drama’ set in 1952 when it was written, and absolutely true to the spirit of the famous piece. It’ll be like a pair of comfy slippers.

“Actually, we’re finding there are a lot of people in their twenties that are absolute Christie lovers as well, so it’s not just about a more mature market; it’s absolutely a market that spans all ages. That’s the glory of it really.”

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Director Gary Young is also aware of the storming successes enjoyed by recent amateur Mousetraps. His sister reported that her local Tamworth Dramatic Society had, according to local paper The Northern Daily Reader, ‘broken all records’ with their recent March/April production.

Did he feel any urge to update the Christie original?

“The charm of it is to keep it exactly in its period,” he says. “It doesn’t lend itself to updating because it relies so much on the house being completely isolated. As soon as you bring it forward in time you’re in the land of mobile phones and the whole isolation element goes out the window.”

Will he and his actors resist the urge to ‘camp it up’, just a little?

“I won’t be going for laughs,” Young assures me. “The 1950s characters do have their own amusing eccentricities, so there will be wry humour throughout, but it’s actually quite a dark story. Christie based it on an actual case [of childhood abuse] which has tremendous emotional weight.

“It’s all about masks and subtexts. My plan is to treat it like the analysis of a real case. The audience is building their own kind of white board in their mind as all the pieces are presented. You have to be careful not to reveal too much, just the right information — which may be correct or may be a red herring. The delight for the audience is trying to sort it all out.”

Does he expect snobbery from theatre critics and the arty press?

“Certainly there will be two camps on this,” he says. “There’ll be those who will go ‘oh, this is such an old play, why are they bothering to do it?’, and there’ll be those who’ll embrace it and go ‘Christie is the finest writer ever in this genre and this piece hasn’t run for 60 years in London for no reason’. We will just have to do a version for Australia that’s as entertaining and intriguing as we can make it.”

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Agatha Christie’s technical whodunit skills are unsurpassed. Her magic is both obvious and baffling. Who would have thought back in 1952 that now, 60 years later, her very name would still guarantee international film and television ratings.

Amateur theatre groups still waiting in line will just have to wait. Louise Withers has plenty of plans for what could happen after the current ‘comfy slippers’ tour ends.

“It would be fantastic to take it on a regional tour to the rest of Australia,” she enthuses. “The only capital city in the theatre market we don’t get to this time is Brisbane, so we’re hoping to do a season in Brisbane later and then maybe in 2014 go to other regional markets.” 

Originally published in the July / august edition of Stage Whispers.

David Spicer's review.

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