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Monday, 25 November, 2002, 17:38 GMT
Mystery of world's longest-running play
The Mousetrap has outlived thousands of productions
The extraordinary success of The Mousetrap is almost as much of a mystery as the story itself.

Its longevity has bemused many critics in a tough old business where the curtain has gone down on many a show's opening night.

When the West End's most famous whodunnit opened at the Ambassadors Theatre, Winston Churchill was still at number 10 and Stalin ruled Russia.

It has since transferred to St Martins Theatre where it has become something of a national institution - as popular with tourists as Westminster Abbey and Big Ben.

The stage clock: A permanent fixture
Agatha Christie's play has been translated into more than 20 languages, performed in more than 40 countries, and an estimated 10m people have seen it.

Some critics have argued that such a coveted theatrical venue should be freed up for new and cutting edge shows.

But that argument appears out of step with public opinion. When closure was once threatened, the theatre was inundated with people rushing to catch the final performances. That was in 1955.

Secret

And there is little sign the Mousetrap will wind up now.

It is part of London theatrical history and home to the West End's best kept secret. Unless you see it, no one will tell you who the murderer is.

That is, unless you don't tip your taxi driver as he drops you off. It's said that as revenge he may well slip you the murderer's name.

If being the longest running play in the world isn't enough there are plenty more record-breaking statistics to be had.

Millions of tickets have been sold, since it opened on 25 November 1952. An annual change of cast means that many hundreds of actors and actresses have graced its boards. Not forgetting the tonnes of ice cream which visitors have consumed.

Sir Richard Attenborough and Sheila Sim were the show's first and only big names
But the most mind-boggling fact of all has to be that The Mousetrap has lived to see any records broken at all.

By rights, the old man of the West End, like its set, should not have stood the test of time.

Apart from Sir Richard Attenborough and his wife Sheila Sims in the original cast, the play goes against West End tradition, making a point of not signing big names.

Most critics seem to agree that it is by no means Christie's best play. Even Christie herself seemed bemused by its appeal.

Secrecy

"It's not really frightening. It's not really horrible. It's not really a farce. But it has a little of all these things and perhaps that satisfies a lot of people," she once said.

What is good is the ending, which tradition dictates must remain shrouded in secrecy.

When it opened, Daily Mail critic Cecil Wilson said: "The play has the expert merit of keeping us guessing to the very end. " But David Turner, a long-time artistic director of The Mousetrap, has his own theories as to the play's endurance.

"It was very fortunate that Richard Attenborough was in it at the beginning and made a commitment for 18 months. It gave the play a firm foundation to build on.


It doesn't take the brains of Churchill to figure out who did it but it's a well constructed thriller with lots of laughs

John Lyons
"Now it's lucky to be different from other shows because people come to see the play and not the players and it's a lot of fun - full of red herrings and hidden clues," he says.

John Lyons, who has starred as Major Metcalfe, has his own judgement.

"It doesn't take the brains of Churchill to figure out who did it but it's a well constructed thriller with lots of laughs.

"Each new cast is carefully picked to get on with each other and after eight performances a week for a whole year there is a great team spirit. But it's good to make a change of actors after that time, it keeps the production fresh," he says.

Influence

The constant to and fro of carefully-picked players is just one of the management strategies introduced by the original producer Sir Peter Saunders.

Although he retired in 1994 aged 83, many still put much of the play's success down to his influence.

But maybe there is no hidden secret to The Mousetrap other than that it has been around as long as it has.

"The Mousetrap has become a British institution. Like the Tower of London, it's one of those things you just have to see," says a spokesman at London's Albemarle theatre ticket agency.

The world's longest running play celebrated its 20,000th performance in December 2000.

Many believe it will see out another 20,000 shows - at least.

See also:

25 Nov 02 | Entertainment
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