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Oxford Payhouse, Oxford

I spent the other night in a Time Warp called Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. I had a perfectly pleasant time living through an evening in about 1952. World War II was not long gone; the world was going paranoid about the Iron Curtain; rationing was barely over (hence lots of references to food); you couldn’t really leave the UK if you wanted a winter break – hence a group of people snowed in at a manor house just turned into a hotel. The life on the stage was definitely middle class, reasonably prosperous despite everything; educated; and muddling through. It partook of the drawing room comedy as well as the mystery thriller genre and the attentive audience gave it even more laughs than it did shocked intakes of breath.

The cast before us was modern yet also partaking of a long historic tradition; some of the aspects of the play were a witty send-up of the very genre of genteel mystery thriller fiction for which we had chosen to get tickets. The sets and costumes were definitely what you would have seen attending a well made pre-Kitchen Sink Dramatic play in the West End, probably as far back as the end of the nineteenth century. It was sort of Terence Rattigan without the angst. It was also a very cleverly plotted mystery.

The director of the tour, Ian Watt-Smith, and months of touring the play have between them produced a well-honed ensemble piece in which the actors are all giving charming and memorable performances. If I start naming them and telling you the specific strengths of each performance you will be here reading for hours. They characterize well and sometimes even thought-provokingly. Edward Elgood’s fay Christopher Wren, Jonathan Sidgwick’s stagey Mr Paravicini, Mark Homer and Esther McAuley as a romantic couple straight out of O. Henry; William Ilkley’s send-up Major Metcalf; Hester Arden’s attractive, troubled Miss Caswell; and Anne Kavanagh’s Mrs Boyle as a kind of latter day Margaret Rutherford type, and finally Luke Jenkins’ perfectly nuanced Sargeant Trotter, are all deserving of praise and attention. There are undercurrents of real darkness and prescience in the story too, the plot involving child abuse and some of the characterizations suggesting what in that era were forbidden sexualities. Maybe a new production would make more of these things but it would be missing the authentic flavour. What is being presented to us is a kind of descendent of the 1952 original, and that in itself also suggests all kinds of sociological niceties not only about the characters but about the audiences that have kept this show going for over six decades. It isn’t Agatha Christie’s best play (my vote is for Witness for the Prosecution) but it still works. I was quite proud of myself for guessing who dunnit, but I ain’t gonna tell you; and anyway, as always with Christie, there are those revelations in the last ten minutes that you never could have imagined but which make perfect sense of everything at last.

It’s a good evening in the theatre and there is lots to enjoy, not least those rather fine performances and the sets and costumes evocative of their era. And like the play in London, the damned thing will probably tour forever! After Oxford it is headed for Truro, Canterbury, the Derngate in Northampton, Durham and places beyond until at least November. It’s a bit like seeing one of those Miss Marple dramas on TV done live and it is the liveness of it all, the fact that it was written for the stage, that also lends an interest to it. So for sociological, dramaturgical and entertainment reasons – not to mention finding out who done it! – I wouldn’t sniff at it if it comes your way. Perhaps you shouldn’t go with the highest expectations of a profound exploration of the human condition, but I found it surprisingly more thought-provoking than I had expected as well as entertaining. And you do get to inhabit 1952 for a couple of hours.

  • Drama
  • By Agatha Christie
  • Directed by Ian Watt-Smith
  • Cast Includes: Hester Arden, Edward Elgood, Mark Homer, William Ilkley, Luke Jenkins, Anne Kavanagh, Esther McAuley, Jonathan Sidgwick
  • Oxford Payhouse, Oxford
  • Until 22 August 2015 (Currently on UK Tour)
  • Review by Mel Cooper
  • 18 August 2015

About The Author

Reviewer (UK)

Canadian-born Mel Cooper first came to the UK to study English Literature at Oxford University and stayed. He was captivated by the culture and history of Britain, which he found to be a welcoming and tolerant country. After working in highly illustrated, non-fiction publishing for over a decade, he founded and edited the magazine Opera Now. Since then he has worked as a consultant to the Japanese broadcaster NHK, a broadcaster on British Satellite Broadcasting, a maker of audio shows and arts critic for several airlines, and as one of the team that started Britain’s first commercial classical music radio station, Classic FM, on which he was both a classical music DJ and creator and presenter of shows like Classic America and Authentic Performance. Throughout this period, he also lectured in music and literature in London and Oxford and published short stories in Canada. After working with the Genesis Foundation on helping to fund arts projects, he continues to write, review and lecture on music and literature. His first novel has just been published as an e-book. The title is City of Dreams. It is the first volume of a projected saga called The Dream Bearers. You can find the Kindle version of the book on Amazon.

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