The world’s longest-running murder mystery is coming to Yorkshire. Nick Ahad discovers the secrets of The Mousetrap.
The secret of whodunit has been kept under wraps for 60 years – until now.
The world’s most famous theatre mystery, the identity of the murderer in The Mousetrap, has been revealed to around 10 million people over the past six decades: enough for me not to feel too guilty about revealing the identity of the killer here.
I will, however, out of respect for theatre tradition, leave the revelation until the very last paragraph of this piece.
The Mousetrap, which opened on November 25, 1952, is celebrating its anniversary in London’s West End by licensing, for the first time, a national tour of the show. The day after the play celebrates its diamond jubilee it will begin a week-long run of its only Yorkshire dates this year.
Tickets at the Alhambra Theatre in Bradford are already selling fast, a testament to just how popular this piece remains, six decades after it first surprised audiences with a denouement that keeps them guessing to this day.
“I’ve seen it a few times now and the audience always lets out this collective ‘oh!’ at the end,” says actor Thomas Howes. “Even if you have seen it before, it’s like re-reading the Christie books, you look for the clues that are hidden in the story about who the killer is, all those things that you don’t spot when you watch it the first time round.”
Howes is best known for playing William in Downton Abbey, the footman who falls in love with Daisy the scullery maid, but will be playing the pivotal role of Sgt Trotter in the tour of The Mousetrap when it comes to Bradford this autumn.
“My agent called me as soon as he heard the role was coming up, because he knew it was one of those parts that’s on my tick-list that I want to play,” he says. “They are enormous shoes to fill and it is a role that has been played by so many absolutely brilliant people over the years. I jumped at the chance to appear in the show. It was like when I played Scripps in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys on tour, it is one of those dream roles that as an actor, you just hope come along some day.”
The difficulty when it comes to writing about The Mousetrap is that, despite 60 years of history, the plot remains under wraps. That it remains such a tightly- bound secret is remarkable in a day and age where social media doesn’t just abound, but proliferates, meaning that even identities kept secret under court order become public domain before the judge’s gavel has hammered.
The Mousetrap is a murder mystery which sees, in classic fashion, a group of strangers gather in a country house where they realise there is a murderer in their midst.
With almost 25,000 performances and 403 actors having appeared on stage with the show since it first opened, it has become an enduring symbol of London’s West End – and by association, British theatre.
“The reason it has lasted is because they are real people on stage, not caricatures,” says Sir Stephen Waley-Cohen. A theatre manager and owner, he became producer of The Mousetrap in 1994.
If you’re waiting in a London West End theatre for a producer who is a “Sir” you might expect a certain sort of person. But then, if you see a murder mystery play that opened in 1952, you might equally make presumptions. Both The Mousetrap and its producer flip those assumptions on their head.
Sir Stephen arrives at the theatre and immediately suggests leaving to find a pub for our interview – despite there being all of 10 minutes to curtain up. Not what you might expect from the show’s producer. Equally, if with The Mousetrap you are expecting a staid, country-house dull drama, it will reverse all expectations.
“It’s about abused children,” roars Sir Stephen at the suggestion that The Mousetrap is hackneyed or passe. “I asked a very distinguished director to take a look at the show – I know what people think of it – I wanted to know what his absolutely honest reaction was.
“He said that intellectually it was a very interesting play. All the characters have enormous back-stories and it is far darker than most people expect it to be.”
I can confirm it is indeed a far darker story than I imagined. The problem, of course, with something like The Mousetrap is that it is so very “establishment”. It’s a word which has an awful lot of negative connotations, but no play gets to spend 60 years in the West End without first being very good.
As Sir Stephen says: “It hasn’t lasted 60 years by not giving people a good night out.”
As it goes out on the road, the big question of course is can the cat be kept in the bag? At the end of the show, the actors come out on the stage and following the curtain call, each audience member is reminded that they are now a part of The Mousetrap legend and that they hold the secret to the show. You are asked not to reveal the ending and the truth is, if you have made the effort to travel to London’s West End for a piece of event theatre like The Mousetrap, you are likely to be happy to collude.
But will the secret become cheaper and easier to spread now that the show is going to be on our doorstep?
“It’s the most famous murder mystery there is,” says Sir Stephen. “And it’s been kept a secret for 60 years. I think there’s a very good reason for that.”
So, to the identity of the killer: you didn’t think I was actually going to reveal that did you? It’s remained one of British theatre’s great mysteries for a reason and, as is pointed out at the end of the show, I am now part of The Mousetrap tradition and will take the secret to my grave.
The Mousetrap, Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, November 26 to December 1. 01274 432000.