Theatregoers Still Caught in The Mousetrap

A young Richard Attenborough speaking at a meeting of Equity, the actors' union
A young Richard Attenborough speaking at a meeting of Equity, the actors' union

by Ray Setterfield

November 25, 1952Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, starring husband and wife Richard Attenborough and Sheila Sim, opened at London’s Ambassador Theatre on this day – and the play is still going.

It is the longest-running production in history, reaching its 25,000th performance in November, 2012.

The murder mystery has a twist at the end, which audiences have always been asked not to reveal after leaving the theatre. Each night one of the actors makes a direct address to the audience: “Now you have seen The Mousetrap you are our partners in crime and we ask you to keep the secret of ‘whodunit’ locked in your hearts.”

The idea was not to spoil the play for those who had yet to see it. And the appeal seems to have worked – until 2010 when Wikipedia gave the game away on its website.

Despite protests from Agatha Christie’s family and from theatregoers, Wikipedia was unrepentant. A spokesman said: “It's exceedingly easy to avoid knowing the identity of the murderer: just don't read it.

“Asking Wikipedia not to reveal the identity of the murderer is like asking a library to remove copies of The Mousetrap book from the shelves because someone could just go and read the end.”

Not so, Wikipedia! Agatha Christie asked that the short story on which the play is based – Three Blind Mice – should not be published as long as it ran as a play in London. As a result, it has never been published in the UK.

Another unique facet of the production is that the cast is changed every year, usually in November on the anniversary of the play's opening. There is a tradition that the retiring leading lady and the new leading lady cut a "Mousetrap cake" together. More than 400 actors have appeared in the play since 1952.

One of the originals, Richard Attenborough, was an active member of the actors’ union Equity around that time and when he was not performing on stage could be relied upon to deliver a powerful speech at union meetings.

He and his wife took a 10 per cent profit-participation in the production, about which he later said: “It proved to be the wisest business decision I've ever made, but foolishly I sold some of my share to open a short-lived restaurant and later still, disposed of the remainder in order to keep [the movie] Gandhi afloat."

Foolish, maybe, but not even Agatha Christie detected what a huge success the play would become.

In her autobiography, the author, who died in 1976, recalled a conversation that she had with the play’s first producer, Peter Saunders. "Fourteen months I am going to give it", Saunders said. "It won't run that long,” she replied. “Eight months, perhaps. Yes, I think eight months."

Published: October 6, 2016

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