The Mousetrap’s backstage secrets as it celebrates 70th anniversary

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Friday November 25 marks the 70th anniversary of The Mousetrap in the West End, the world’s longest-running play by quite some stretch, and its staggering 28,915th performance.

The Agatha Christie-penned murder mystery had its world premiere on October 6, 1952 at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham before opening in the West End at the Ambassadors Theatre on Tuesday November 25, 1952.

To put it in historical context, when the curtain went up on The Mousetrap in London, Queen Elizabeth II was just a few months into her 70-year reign, rationing was still in place after the end of World War Two and the most popular film at the box office was The Greatest Show on Earth, starring Charlton Heston and James Stewart.

The original cast included Richard Attenborough and his wife Shelia Sim, who were recently seen portrayed in See How They Run, starring Saoirse Ronan and Sam Rockwell, a murder caper set around that first production in London as it celebrated reaching 100 shows in 1953.

By April 1958, The Mousetrap had already broken the record as the longest-running show in the West End and its move to St Martin’s Theatre in March 1974 means it has still played in that house far longer than any other competitor nipping at its heels has been around (Les Misérables wouldn’t open until 1985).

The team also revealed that they ‘moved heaven and earth’ to ensure they would be ready to be the first production up and running after the Covid-19 pandemic on May 17, 2021, to give the West End its triumphant, glittering return after over a year of dark theatres.

Producer Adam Spiegel, Mayor of Camden Sabrina Francis and theatre star Michael Ball officially reopen The Mousetrap – and the West End – after the pandemic (Picture: Getty)
Friday 25th November’s performance number, on its 70th anniversary in the West End (Picture: Tori Brazier)

‘I do feel proud that I’m part of it, especially with the 70th anniversary,’ Ian Talbot, director of the play for the last decade, told Metro.co.uk.

‘When I took the job, I didn’t think I’d be doing it for so long and each cast brings something new to it. I auditioned for [the part of] Christopher Wren a long time ago and didn’t get it, so I feel like it’s revenge, coming in to direct it!’

Just what is it though that has made The Mousetrap such an enduring success?

‘There aren’t many plays on in the West End, it’s mainly very expensive musicals, which have a place and I like them, but this is affordable. Its appeal, I would stress, is for the whole family, so you get grandpa down to a nine-year-old and they’re all gripped by it.’

‘The thing I love is listening to people in the interval deciding who did it, and nine times out of 10 they’re all wrong. They like guessing it and there’s a gasp when they found out who did it, which is wonderful,’ Talbot adds.

The Mousetrap moved to its current home of St Martin’s Theatre in 1974 (Picture: Tori Brazier)
Original cast members Lady Attenborough and Lord Richard Attenborough in 2004 (Picture: Ferdaus Shamim/WireImage)
Attenborough and Sim headed up the cast on one of the show’s original posters in 1952, decades-worth of which decorate the interior of the theatre (Picture: Tori Brazier)

The power of The Mousetrap to keep ‘whodunnit’ a secret so successfully over seven decades is remarkable, with one of the play’s characters making a direct appeal to the audience after every performance.

‘[The audience] become very possessive about it, because at the end of the show a character steps forward and says, “You’re now part of the club, and please don’t tell anybody”, and they don’t, they keep [the secret], they feel privileged,’ Talbot explains.

‘I’ve met people and they’ve said, “I can’t find out, won’t you tell me who did it?” And I’ve said, “No, I won’t tell you!”’

The Mousetrap is also currently touring the country to celebrate its 70th anniversary, alongside the ongoing West End production

To mark the 70th anniversary, The Mousetrap is running a national tour to over 70 venues around the country; for its sixtieth, they managed to mount 60 productions around the world. This is all the more astonishing when it transpires that Christie and the original team didn’t think it had much staying power.

‘Sir Peter Saunders [the original producer] reckoned if he got six months out of, he’d be very lucky. I do know Agatha Christie thought it wouldn’t run for long because she gave the rights to her grandson, which I think he’s quite grateful for – he’s still getting royalties,’ notes Talbot.

‘I wouldn’t mind a present like that!’

With a 70-year run under its belt, The Mousetrap comes steeped in theatrical history – but they’re not afraid to keep things fresh.

Explaining why he took the job, Talbot said: ‘I wanted to change bits. I didn’t want to change the dialogue and you can’t change the entrances and exits because it’s a murder mystery and they come on from certain [directions], but I was told that in the past, they did exactly the same moves every year – and so much so that they had to change the carpet because of all the footprints!’

It’s 20 years after this now! (Picture: Tori Brazier)
After 70 years, much of the set has had to be replaced, including carpets (Picture: Tori Brazier)
… However, this clock remains as an original set piece from the very first show (Picture: Tori Brazier)

Denise Silvey, who works as both artistic director and associate director at the play, remembers this herself, having played Miss Casewell during two separate stints in the cast. 

‘Originally the direction always had to remain the same and so you would do certain moves as an actor, which you weren’t really aware of why you were doing them – but you were doing it because everybody else did and that was quite restricting as an actor.’

Her job now sees her cast the show (it changes every six months) alongside Talbot, as well as look after the understudies, regularly re-watch both the touring show and London production to ‘note’ the actors, help with general queries, and talk about the history of The Mousetrap.

One tease she mentions for audience members is that they should keep their ears pricked for an original 70-year-old recording still used during the show…

During our filmed tour, she points out the oldest parts of the set, including an original clock (‘We daren’t touch it, we’re terrified of it!’) and some impressively manual stage effects courtesy of a wind machine, musical instruments and an actual door prop.

‘It’s very much of a period that when we have door slams, we do it physically.’

Well, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? And certainly not after 70 record-breaking years

The Mousetrap is on at St Martin’s Theatre in the West End and currently booking until November 25, 2023.

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