THE PLAY’S . . . SORTA THE THING: Opening The Mousetrap

Today marks opening night for the production of The Mousetrap that I directed at the high school where I spent twenty-eight years teaching drama. I woke up all too early and checked my e-mail, only to find this missive, sent to the cast and crew from our play’s stage manager, a remarkable young woman named Kelania:

“Hello, my name is Detective Kelania.

I’ve recently received a murder case that was located in this very theater. My suspicions have led me to believe that the murderer is one of our very own. As fellow curious folk, I am tasking you all with finding clues to piece together the crime, and find the killer hidden among the company. Your arrival time is 5PM, on the dot.

During this morning’s investigation of the crime scene, I found some objects left behind, including a note hidden within the person’s pocket:


Though I am skilled with fleeing and taking life,

The evidence is forever sewn.

I’ve purposely left my tracks behind,

To ensure that my purpose is known.

From riddles, you’ll piece together my identity.

But first, find a resting place of serenity.

From it’s path, grasp a reflective face,

As nothing is more revealing, than a pencil with a trace.


I ask that you photograph any evidence that you find, so that the evidence does not become highly disturbed. Afterwards, reconvene your findings back to my station. A form will be sent out later in the day to vote for our most suspicious member that night.

Best of luck detectives,

Kelania P.”

*     *     *     *     *

The Mousetrap Set (d. Robin “Dutch” Fritz) under construction

It looks like the students have entered into the spirit of the Golden Age of Detection that the magic of Agatha Christie has inspired in me for, lo, these many years. It warms my heart to see that because, to be honest, I don’t think they’ve been totally convinced by the play itself. And, to further wade through these honest waters, this production, which comes twenty years after I directed The Mousetrap for the first time, has shaken my own faith in the play as well. 

If you are not familiar with The Mousetrap . . . well, who are you, and why are you hanging about in this place? Never mind, here’s a quick rundown:

The Mousetrap is the longest-running play in history. Last year marked the 70th anniversary of the London production that opened in 1952 and starred a young Richard Attenborough and his wife. It began in 1947 as a half-hour radio play called “Three Blind Mice” that Christie wrote to celebrate the birthday of Queen Mary. Christie then adapted this into a long short story and then expanded this into a full-length play. 

This was Christie’s sixth play. It was produced nine years after And Then There Were None, Christie’s adaptation of her finest novel. That play opened in 1943 and had a respectable run of a little under a year; it might have played longer if the theater in which it opened hadn’t been bombed. (The American production ran exactly one year.) Christie’s own opinion was that it was her best piece of craftsmanship and the true start of her playwrighting career. 

Her seventh play, Witness for the Prosecution, opened a year after The Mousetrap and is arguably her best work for the theatre. It had a healthy run in both the West End and on Broadway and is currently enjoying a lengthy and popular revival in London. But it has garnered nothing like the success of The Mousetrap, which is in every way a weaker piece of theatre. 

Whither, then, its huge success? I can only guess the reasons. There is, of course, the “IT” factor: that of a major theatre community possessing a record-breaking play. Tourists like that kind of thing! There is the name “Agatha Christie” itself, which causes at least a glimmer of recognition in more people than you might imagine. There is the fact that, unlike Witness for the Prosecution, it’s an easy play to produce: one set containing a half-dozen pieces of furniture and requiring surprisingly few – and quite ordinary – props.

And then there’s the fact that The Mousetrap sprang wholly original from Christie’s head, unsullied by the word “adaptation.” The problem with And Then There Were None, with its tacked-on happy ending, is that it doesn’t come close in dramatic power to its literary source. Witness for the Prosecution, on the other hand, improves on the short story with more rounded characters, lots of courtroom drama, and a keen double twist. But it requires a huge cast and a complex set – and all those wigs! – and is a more expensive proposition for theatre producers. And then there are the other plays, like Appointment with Death, Murder on the Nile, and Go Back for Murder (Five Little Pigs) – all simplified to death from their source material, all missing Poirot, all lacking that special something that defines Christie’s best.

The Mousetrap requires eight performers, all of whom have a nice share of the dramatic burden. It takes place over two days, and so you only need a dozen or so costumes. It requires snow, but as I’ve learned, this is an easy thing to accomplish. (Although you have to practice with it: during our first dress rehearsal, the plastic “snow” got caught in the actors’ hair and, as it never melts, it settled unnaturally on the tops of their heads like mutant dandruff.) Looking back over the past six weeks, I do believe my young actors enjoyed bringing these characters to life. But all through the process, questions kept popping up that drove the performers (and their frantic director) a little mad. 

If you’re familiar with the play, these may not be the questions that you think. (If you are not aware of the what the play is about and how it ends, you might want to stop reading here and simply wish us a good opening night. Thank you for coming.) Nobody was bothered by the artificiality of the plot, something we all take for granted in the Golden Age of Detection. The basic concept of the play, that people in the present are haunted by crimes in the past, has become so well-trodden in today’s thriller market that the teenagers felt quite comfortable with it. The more remarkable idea that, out of these eight strangers, five of them would have some connection to the Longridge Farm case, while the other three are carrying their own secrets – all of this was accepted as part of the game. Some aspects, however, drove everyone crazy, and I have to admit that, this time around, I felt a little crazy myself. 

For instance, there’s the problem of Major Metcalf . . . 

We don’t actually meet Major Metcalf in the play. After the first murder takes place in London and the words “Monkswell Manor” are found in a most conveniently dropped notebook, the police ask the real Metcalf if they can replace him with one of their own. And yet, when Sergeant Trotter appears on the scene, what does “Major Metcalf” do? 

Well, first, he tries to make a phone call (in front of everyone, mind you), but the line has been cut. And then, he does . . . nothing. Even after Mrs. Boyle is murdered, “Metcalf” does nothing. Oh, he steals the Sergeant’s skis and hides them so that Trotter is now trapped with the rest of them. He never confronts Trotter or confides in him or in any other person. 

I can see how “Metcalf” could have a problem with no easy solution. If Trotter is genuine, which seems highly unlikely, then confiding in someone else about his suspicions could put “Metcalf” in the sights of the real killer. If he confronts Trotter, there’s no telling what sort of violence that could trigger. The problem, though, is that my cast came to the conclusion that “Metcalf” has to bear some responsibility for the death of Mrs. Boyle. 

None of this is dealt with in the play. Major Metcalf has the smallest role: he spends most of the time observing the others argue. When he talks, he uses the weapon of geniality to obstruct Trotter’s aims. (“No good shouting at me, young fellow. I wasn’t thinking about any damned skis. I was interested in the cellars.”) In the end, when he reveals himself, he is still genial. The actor playing Metcalf wondered why he felt no remorse. I couldn’t answer that. 

Then there’s the problem of Miss Casewell . . . 

The murders in The Mousetrap are a matter of revenge by Georgie, the surviving victim of terrible child abuse, against those he deems responsible for the death of his little brother and his separation from his sister, Katherine. Miss Casewell turns out to be Katherine, who had been immediately adopted by another family. Clearly, she was also traumatized by the events at Longridge Farm. Although she presents herself as a hearty, even manly young woman, she is unable to settle in any one place. More than once, she descends into a moody contemplation of something dark and bad. And towards the end, she admits that despite being only twenty-four, she looks, for some reason, much older. 

Given her changed appearance and manner, as well as Georgie’s disturbed frame of mind, one can understand – but only barely – why he does not recognize Katherine under the guise of Miss Casewell. But why on earth does she not recognize him?!? The first remark made about Sergeant Trotter (by Mrs. Boyle) concerns his youthful appearance. He doesn’t appear marked by past experiences at all. And yet, a mere eight years later, Miss Casewell – who has returned to England for the express purpose of finding her brother – does not recognize the young man standing beside her and talking up a storm until he makes the motion of twirling his hair with his finger. 

And when she does recognize Georgie, what happens next? Does she say, “Omigod! Georgie, it’s me . . . your beloved sister Katherine!” Nope – she panics and exits the room as quickly as possible. She tells nobody about what she has discovered. Why? To protect her insane brother? When Trotter gathers everyone together, she does not announce in the safety of the group who he is (and what he has probably done); instead, she falls in line with Trotter’s fake plan to catch the killer. And then, in the nick of time, she catches the killer herself.  

To be fair, Christie deals far better with the two pure red herrings of the play: Christopher Wren and Mr. Paravicini. They behave as suspiciously as can be for their own reasons, and these reasons are convincing, especially in light of the play’s setting in a post-War England. 

Finally, there’s the matter of Mollie and Giles Ralston, the newlywed couple who own and run Monkswell Manor, the setting of the play. If they were merely a young couple trying in their own inexperienced way to start a business, it would all be quite charming. They could even be the detectives in the play, trying to run down a killer before he ruins their new concern. But Mollie is buried up to her hips in the Longridge Farm business, having taught school to the late younger brother. And Giles? Christie spends an awful lot of energy heaping suspicion on Giles: he wears the uniform of the killer, he manifests an inordinate interest in the London murder, and he goes into fits of jealous rage over, of all people, Christopher Wren. 

And in the end? Giles’ deep, dark secret is that he snuck off to London to buy an anniversary present for Mollie. Of course, Mollie’s other secret is that she was in London as well, doing the exact same thing. This leads first to a devastating argument, and then to the treacliest, most sitcom-ready ending of a play that Christie ever devised, and she doubles down on the treacle by having the pie Mollie has been baking since the top of Act I, Scene 2 go up in smoke. 

I may be kvetching quite a lot. And yet . . . The Mousetrap, for all its flaws, is a play that runs like clockwork. Christie includes so many clever bits – the murder of Mrs. Boyle (a fine character) over a radio psychologist’s lecture on fear, the attention drawn to Giles’ costume, the perfectly legitimate reasons that Paravicini, Chris Wren and Major Metcalf all behave as if they had something to hide. (They do!) – that one can almost forgive the wealth of coincidences that hold the plot together, as well as the utter dearth of clues. Which is sad, because clever clueing is Christie’s forte. 

Anyway, I will bring this to a close because I have to get to the theatre. I’m going to try and sneakily solve Kelania’s mystery for myself. Naturally, I shall be extremely pleased if I fail utterly at the task! And after that puzzle is solved, I’ll be sitting in the back of the theatre, rooting my cast and crew on! 

Break a leg!

8 thoughts on “THE PLAY’S . . . SORTA THE THING: Opening The Mousetrap

  1. Most of the criticisms regarding the Mousetrap are correct. And yet I truly love it. I still remember reading the novella (which luckily was published here in Germany) for the first time and it was one of the most fun times reading Agatha Christie. And I had this fun time again when I finally could see the play in Düsseldorf a few years ago (shortly pre pandemic).

    I have to admit that I can’t tell you exactly why I like it so much. I do see that some others of her plays (not to mention many of her novels) are better structured and much better clued. But still Mousetrap is great fun for me.

    I do think there’s one clue, which actually may be stronger in the novella than in the play and it made my mother (Rest in peace, she shared my love for Agatha Christie) deduce the killer.

    Spoiler: It was when Mrs Boyle listened to the radio play, was startled when someone entered and then relieved.


  2. Break legs for the duration of the run to your cast and crew! I think your criticisms of the play are perfectly valid, but as you said, The Mousetrap is like a perfectly-calibrated machine. When it works, it works! I saw a production at a large and renowned regional theatre many years ago and, despite some very poor creative choices, there is no denying the power of Christie’s dramatic prowess. I am actually scheduled to audition for an upcoming community theatre production and it would be a dream come true to land a role!


  3. I directed Mousetrap as my first drama production as high school drama teacher. I chose it because i loved Agatha Christie and had seen two previous productions( one at a college and one in London). I later directed Ten Little Indians as well. I found her play scripts wonderful to direct from because of their clarity of notes and directions, making them great for young,inexperienced performers.
    Break a leg!


  4. It’s not just the dearth of clues that is the problem, but the extraordinary amount of factual information that is brought up and sifted through— all through talk— to arrive at a solution in which none of that factual information has any bearing. And even the very few elements that could qualify as clueing, such as Mrs. Boyle’s observation that Trotter seems too young to be an inspector, are not recalled at the denouement, so they have no value to an audience. “Wasted virtue” is the term I apply to such elements.

    Throughout the play, I find myself thinking, “If this had been written by Agatha Christie, then…” as if she didn’t write it. For example, the missing “S” in “Monkswell Manor.” “If this had been written by Agatha Christie,” I say to myself, “then that missing ‘S’ would have some significance, some consequence… SOME value of some kind.” As it is, its only value is to help lengthen a radio play into stage play length.

    I don’t think such a play need be a Death on the Nile or a Problem of the Green Capsule. But a few little “aha”s such as found in The Spider’s Web would add immeasurably to its value as a mystery play.

    With no compunction I can confidently say that my “companion piece” play— which is NOT a mystery play and makes no pretense to be one— has more clueing that The Mousetrap, and I’ve no doubt that Kelania’s puzzle does as well.


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