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New Theatre Oxford, Oxford

Seeing the same old, 64-year old original production of The Mousetrap doing the rounds again (and booking at the moment at all the venues coming up until 6 January 2018) should be principally an exercise in nostalgia, right? It should even be a bit like entering a time warp – a well-made play of the old thriller variety; a drawing room ambience from the West End stage in the style of 64 years ago; some creaking of the floorboards and the plot. And that is how it started out for me this time round. I was enjoying the Miss Marple-ness of it all; and the excellent, relaxed cast of players in their period accents and period costumes, going very professionally, slickly and appealingly through the motions and concerns rather like Mrs Miniver. Ah, comforting old 1952; comforting old Agatha.

And then I was startled by the turn in the back story that I had more or less forgotten. Because – and this could be a spoiler for you, so stop now, even though I am not going to give away who dunnit or why – here is the thing. This is a play that hinges on child abuse. It is a story about the failure of social services. It is a post-war tale of the discovery of historic pre-war child abuse. It is a story that could be straight out of today’s headlines. It echoes the stories that we are hearing on the newscasts on TV every day at the moment.

It is also a story about the guilt of people who should have known better, perceived what was going on, and helped. It’s a story about missed opportunities. It is a story about adults refusing to see what was clear, about their slipping up. It is, in fact, quite a shocking story about the dark side of human nature.

And then the penny finally dropped for me. Agatha Christie got away with it because of the drawing room drama overlay, the polite English accents, the playing with class system prejudices and comforts. She made it all superficially acceptable if you do not want to look too deeply. But every single one of her mysteries is, after all, a story of the dark side. We concentrate on the sleuthing. That makes us feel clever and as if we were playing with a crossword puzzle. But look at what is being uncovered and there is a very disturbing subtext. And by the end of the evening, it was clear that the actors and the director were on to the trick. Every one of the cast of eight is praiseworthy in his or her ability to convey the style of the original and yet give some sense of the character he or she is playing. Lewis Collier, for example, is an attractive, charming Sergeant Trotter, the role originated by Richard Attenborough; and Anna Andresen is memorable as Mollie, the role originated by his wife, Sheila Sim. I thought Nick Barclay was suitably complex as Giles. Oliver Gully was a bit over-the-top in his campness as Chris Wren but I could see why.

That fine director Ian Watt-Smith is in charge of the proceedings again. I saw this performance with a friend who has never seen the play before and who was totally charmed the moment the curtain went up and completely gripped once the thriller elements arrived. This is an excellent rendering of the play; and I found it worth seeing more than once because after you get over the surprises, there is a startlingly dark subtext to come to terms with. It turns out that it is not really such a bad thing that it has lasted for nearly 65 years already and still counting. But, hand to heart, back to wall, I think that Witness for the Prosecution is a better play. Get the Billy Wilder film of that one as a companion piece to this.

  • Drama
  • By Agatha Christie
  • Director: Ian Watt-Smith
  • Producer: Sir Stephen Waley-Cohen and Adam Spiegal
  • Cast Includes: Anna Andresen, Nick Barclay, Tony Boncza, Lewis Collier, Gregory Cox, Amy Downham, Oliver Gully, Sarah Whitlock
  • New Theatre Oxford, Oxford
  • On UK Tour
  • Review by Mel Cooper
  • 5 December 2016

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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