Review: The Mousetrap – Diamond Anniversary Tour, Bradford Alhambra, 26/11/2012
When? Monday 26th November 2012
Where? Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, stalls
Who? Steven France, Thomas Howes, Karl Howman, Bruno Langley, Graham Seed, Jemma Walker, Jan Waters, Clare Wilkie
2012 has been a quite extraordinary year for Britain. Completely apart from the world of theatre and performance – a remarkable half-sentence coming from me – it has been a year we can be rightly proud of. The remarkable success and legacy of the Olympic games is plain for all to see – and Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony spectacular in particular was a joy to behold (well, that didn’t take long!). 2012 also marked a very special 60th anniversary for someone, a certain lady on the throne, known the world over as a British institution. That’s right, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap is celebrating it’s first ever full UK tour – and the Queen of Crime’s masterpiece is in positively majestic form.
Set exclusively in the grand hall of the newly established guest house Monkswell Manor, the set-up is classic Christie. A grisly murder has been committed in London amidst a huge snowstorm which is battering southern England. Newlywed couple, The Ralstons, are preparing to receive their new house-guests – each with their own secret reasons for visiting the isolated retreat. Before long, a police sergeant arrives – on skis – bringing news of the London murder, with the belief that one or more of the guests may be involved…
Sir Stephen Waley-Cohen and Adam Spiegel’s tour is a very timely tonic for the UK straight play touring circuit. One which is guaranteed to fill venues up and down the country for as long as the noted producers wish I suspect – but agreeably for all the right reasons. Director Ian Watt-Smith is no stranger to The Mousetrap, having directed the 38th, 41st, 58th and 59th years of the West End production and his intricate understanding of the piece is the key to this production’s success. Christie’s writing is sharp and witty, but in the hands of the wrong director can tumble into parody or, worse still, a ham-fest. Watt-Smith’s genius is in understanding what to play straight and what to send up; amusing and dramatically thrilling in all the right places, The Mousetrap absolutely flies by – and yet feels dense, tense and emotionally engaging.
The Diamond Anniversary tour of The Mousetrap is a brilliant, timeless and iconic production – and Monkswell Manor is positively lit up by one of the finest casts I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in a straight play in recent years. The entire company are strong: Steven France gives a hilarious performance as a flouncing, but deeply vulnerable Christopher Wren; Jemma Walker and Bruno Langley make a likeable and convincing Mr and Mrs. Ralston; Mousetrap regular Jan Waters makes a softer and funnier Mrs Boyle than I’ve seen previously and Clare Wilkie makes far more of Miss Casewell than could be reasonably asked of her, with a far subtler and considerably less angry vibe about her than many other actresses who have played the role previously as, to be blunt, ‘an angry lesbian’. Graham Seed as Major Metcalf shares some amusing first act banter with Mrs Boyle which earned hearty laughs from the audience; Karl Howman’s half-baked Italian-ish accent as Mr Paravicini is so ropey as to actually work in his favour, casting doubt on the character’s true identity…
The undoubted star-turn though comes from Doncaster born Thomas Howes as Detective Sergeant Trotter. Howes, known to television audiences for his performance as William in ITV’s Downton Abbey, shows his versatility and brilliance as a character actor and leaves a lasting impression on the audience with an outstanding performance. He looks, sounds and adopts mannerisms so far removed from his noted television turn that he is barely recognisable. And his performance is certainly not identikit, in fact, with director Watt-Smith, Howes adds quirks and traits to the character which help make the role truly his own – Howes will be a big loss to the production when he leaves the show at the end of the Bradford run. His replacement is yet to be confirmed.
The production values are superb and no expense has been spared in recreating the West End production for tour. Whilst the Diamond Anniversary tour is technically a new production, it is in essence a reproduction – Anthony Holland’s original sets, the costumes, lighting design and so forth are almost identically replicated from the West End, where the production is re-directed once a year – regardless of the frequency of cast changes – to help ensure freshness. From experience though it doesn’t, as the West End production housed less than a few hundred people the last time I attended, most of whom were tourists. The tour production feels infinitely fresher, the regional audience frankly better.
Admittedly, it does take a few scenes to adjust to some of the follies of ‘an Agatha Christie’ as one integrates oneself into her universe. Christie’s fictional settings are ones which surely felt old-fashioned even in her day, so in 2012 a fair amount of willing suspension is necessary for any audience. One such example are accents; most of the company adopt the tried and trusted attempt at 1950′s ‘BBC newsreader’ RP – a rather stifling necessity for an actor with a natural regional accent, perhaps straining to imbue their performance with credibility. It is fortunate, then, that Watt-Smith’s focus is on delivering fully fleshed out incarnations of each and every character and is hugely successful in doing so. The Mousetrap is more than a play, it is a tradition – a staple of British theatre. This sense of tradition is enforced by the company’s request to the audience at the curtain call not to reveal the identity of the killer.
I appreciate that The Mousetrap is not without its critics; many commentators have bemoaned the sixty-year West End policy of refusing to discount tickets for a show that frequently struggles to put bums on seats – and some simply find Christie’s famous ‘cosy’ trademark style simply too, well, cosy for a 2012 audience. But there is no denying that in front of a packed Bradford Alhambra audience, some sixty years since it embarked on its West End run, we were caught up in a very special Mousetrap. A true masterpiece, dare I even say with Howes heading the company for his final few performances, in its prime.
- Harry Zing