The 2019 UK Tour of The Mousetrap, the legendary and record-breaking murder mystery from Queen of Crime, Dame Agatha Christie, is currently making its way across the UK. Cast member John Griffiths took the time to speak to Phil Stewart to chat about the play, the genius of Agatha Christie and his career.
Hello John. It’s great to speak to you about such an well-known and popular show. Who do you play in The Mousetrap?
I play Major Metcalf, and I’m also the resident director. We’ve just had an understudy rehearsal. The work never stops, even after 67 years. There’s always stuff we can learn.
The Mousetrap is the longest running play in history, isn’t it?
It opened at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham in October 1952 with Agatha Christie in the audience. It was one of her favourite theatres, she opened quite a few of her plays there, she loved it – and I can understand why, it’s an absolutely beautiful theatre. It started touring in 2012, that was the first ever UK tour to mark the 60th anniversary of the West End run. This is the fourth or fifth tour and its booking a tour for next year already.
Are you new to the show, or have you been doing it for a while?
I am new to it. I first saw it in the sixties and then saw it again with a cousin of mine in the eighties – she came from America and was desperate to see it. But my personal relation with it goes back in December when I was offered the job, and January when we started rehearsing. We opened in Guildford on the 28th January and we’ve been on the road ever since.
Did you leap at the chance to be in such a well-known show?
I absolutely did. But I was interested to know how friends of mine – my peers as it were – would react. I think if it would have been ten years ago, they would have said “oh The Mousetrap, what do you want to do that for? It’s stale, it’s out-of-date, it’s been going forever” but nobody said that. They said “what a fantastic opportunity, how lucky! I wish I was doing it” – and that’s been reinforced by doing it. You realise what a privilege it is. You are part of a long line of people who have played the roles before you. Every one of us from the youngest to the eldest – and I’m the eldest – all of us feel like that, we don’t take it for granted. And everyone, six months in, is still loving it.
What makes it so special? Why has the play ran for so long?
Why it’s run so long is because it is a ripping yarn – Agatha Christie was mistress of the art. It’s full of suspense, full of suspects. It’s also because at the centre of the play, its beating heart, is a true story – which is so relevant – of child cruelty, child abuse. So it’s not just any old whodunnit – it’s based on a true story. It’s got the usual clever one-liners that make you laugh, but it really is a very, very dark play.
Agatha Christie is well known for her darkness in her works, but with a light touch.
Yes. There’s also this gender fluidity – she wouldn’t have called it that. There’s the ambiguous sexuality of Christopher Wren and of Miss Casewell, so she really was ahead of her time. She wasn’t afraid to broach these issues. But what’s very clever is that she shows the other side as well – Giles says “well, don’t ask me to cook – I’ll chop the wood, I’ll stoke up the Aga, I’ll check the central heating, I’ll clear the snow” and Lolly is the one who says “you can leave all the preparation, the vegetables, the cooking and cleaning to me”, so the roles are very defined. But up against that, things are not always like that – there are shades of grey with characters.
Although it features some very modern ideas, and the script says it is set in “the present”, The Mousetrap is very much based in the fifties, isn’t it? Has anything been changed to bring it up-to-date?
There’s been some very minor alterations, but no, it’s as scripted. I don’t think it needs to be brought up-to-date. This can be a failing if you put it in a modern setting. They did try that in the West End – they tried updating to the sixties or seventies – but it’s very much part of the play. It’s almost as if the period is another character. The language – they talk about guineas and the wireless – I think that’s part of the charm and part of the setting. If you go further with modern communication, you think “well this wouldn’t have happened, because this solution would have been found” – I can’t say too much without giving stuff away…
Quite right! We don’t want to give anything away! How has The Mousetrap kept its secrets for so long?
It’s extraordinary. One of the characters makes a curtain speech at the end and says “keep the secret locked in your heart” and people have, and it’s fantastic.
How have the audiences responded to the tour so far?
The audiences have been sensational really. When we opened in Guildford, I thought “well this is what I would expect the demographic of the audience to be” – people of my age, and perhaps older! But as we’ve toured around the country, it’s now become a mix of all ages and classes. We’ve had performing arts students who have found it very frightening, and I’m amazed in these days of computer-generated images where things can be so frightening on screen. But something as simple as a light going out, atmospheric music, someone whistling a haunting tune, can be every bit as frightening because you are part of a visceral experience, not second hand.
So it’s not just for old people then?
Not at all. Young people have said they found it very frightening, they found it very funny, and they found it very moving as well, because it is a study in the dark side of human nature and a psychological thriller. You see the collapse of one human being.
If the script is the same as it has been since 1952, how has the director Gareth Armstrong kept the show fresh? Is it even possible to put your own stamp on a show that has been running so long?
Well you can, and every actor does. Give five actors one speech, you get five different speeches. Playwrights are always amazed what an actor can bring from page to stage. Similarly, a director can bring out many different things. Our production brings out the humour more – not that we are remotely playing it for laughs – but I think it has more humour in it that the current production in the West End.
So it’s worth seeing again, if you’ve already seen the show before, say on the last tour or at the West End?
It’s very different. We are about to lose Gwyneth Strong who’s been playing Mrs Boyle and we are about to get Susan Penhaligon. I know friends of mine who have said they’ll come and see it again for a different portrayal of that part.
That part is often played by a household name, isn’t it?
Yes, I think that’s the route they have chosen to go down. It seems to make sense. There are some wonderful character actresses out there, but after a certain age, for women, acting parts can often dry up – so I think it’s fantastic that this part has been made a vehicle for a woman of a certain age.
Are there particular venues or places you are personally looking forward to visiting on the tour?
I’ll say Norwich. It’s one of my favourite cities. I will certainly find time to go to evensong at the cathedral because I think it’s so beautiful. It’s a lovely city. I was first there at the Theatre Royal in Oliver! with Roy Hudd and Jimmy Edwards in 1982 I think it was, or 1983. I’ve since come back with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I’ve always had a great time at the theatre.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is quite different the darkness in The Mousetrap…
I’ve been quite lucky in my career. I love doing musicals – I was in Phantom of the Opera at the West End for three years, The Sound of Music at the Palladium, The Boyfriend at the West End. I’ve done loads of Shakespeares, which is a great love of mine – but my very first job was an Agatha Christie at the Princess Theatre in Torquay, which we will be visiting, so that will be very special to me. We have also performed at the Palace Theatre, Westcliffe, where in 2002, in 26 weeks, I was in a season where we did every play that Agatha Christie had ever written, so Agatha has featured a lot in my career. It’s been a lovely mix really.
The 2019 UK tour of The Mousetrap will be visiting various venues across the UK until November 16th.