Photos – James Morgan
Taking over (quite ironically) from Ngapartji Ngapartji
on the Playhouse stage, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap
is a tightly-directed period piece as formulaic as it is popular. Come this November, it will have been playing on the West End for 60 years, and already boasts in excess of 24,000 performances.
This quintessential murder mystery funnels a number of Europeans into one room, kills one of them off, and eventually reveals who done it. The complications to Christie’s basic formula in this instance include a couple setting up shop as a guest house; a range of guests, each with their own oddities; a blizzard cutting them off from the outside world; and a potentially intriguing story about a tragedy from almost two decades earlier that took place on a farm neighbouring the guest house. These additions constitute one of Christie’s better contributions to the murder mystery genre, and make The Mousetrap a memorable play.
In this production, a talented cast delivers admirably on Christie’s characteristically verbose script. Christy Sullivan, in the role of Mollie Ralston, holds the play together, and Travis Cotton’s Christopher Wren breathes a little life into the production, but on the whole the performances seem altogether too mechanical, lacking a depth of character and failing to engage with the audience. The exception is when the magnificent Robert Alexander comes to life as Mr Paravicini. The moment he’s in action, the whole stage lights up, however briefly, and suddenly there is life. Christie, unfortunately, wasn’t kind enough to provide any real depth to the character of Paravicini, so it is largely in vain. This production doesn’t recover from heavy-handed direction and performances are mechanical and unspirited even in those characters that Christie took beyond caricature.
The set doesn’t help either. True to a post-war British sitting room, its wood panelling, heavy furniture and enormous window give no life to the action, and they’re further deadened by the addition of a false, plain black proscenium arch that artificially detaches the Playhouse’s wonderful auditorium from its stage.
Mechanical, wordy and far too serious for its own good, the play sits heavily on the stage like some kind of theatrical hearse, its fourth wall most vigorously reinforced so as to render the audience practically irrelevant. My sense is that this play would go on, even if the auditorium were entirely devoid of any audience whatever.
This really is museum theatre. Finely tuned museum theatre, granted, but nonetheless musty, stale and fit only for students of early twentieth century British theatre; a very sad cohort of theatre students indeed. The precision of its performances, and their altogether too routine execution, left no space for pathos, no empathy, and no engagement with character at all, and this left the plot drab and the intrigue of the murder mystery quite absent. Indeed, the highlight of the performance seemed to be when Justin Smith, in the role of Sergeant Trotter, dropped a line during the reveal. The prospect of a little improvisation gave me some hope, but this was soon dashed when he recovered altogether too quickly and returned to rather more mechanical delivery of Christie’s verbiage.
Producers the world over know the heartache of working with the staid and unimaginative owners of Agatha Christie’s copyright. It seems they’re determined to kill what are otherwise redeemable plays from a very dull era in British theatre. This production suggests they might be succeeding in that endeavour.
by Agatha Christie
2012 Australian Tour
Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay from June 30
Canberra Theatre Centre, The Playhouse from August 1
His Majesty's Theatre from August 14
Comedy Theatre from August 30
Dunstan Playhouse from October 9
Produced in Australia by Michael Coppel, Louise Withers, Linda Bewick in association with Adrian Barnes by arrangement with Mousetrap Productions Ltd London