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Wednesday, 16 June, 1999, 10:45 GMT 11:45 UK
Why the mouse still roars
The Mousetrap is fast approaching its 50th year
By BBC News Online's Rebecca Thomas

It's curtains for the set of The Mousetrap, the world's longest-running play.

After 34 years, the scene of Agatha Christie's famous whodunnit, Monkswell Manor, is to be dismantled and put to auction.

The stage clock: A permanent fixture
It is only the second time the set, at London's St Martin's Theatre, has been changed in The Mousetrap's 47-year history - but purists have no need for concern.

The neo-Jacobean hall will be replaced with a brand new replica, including the favourite mantlepiece clock and leather armchair.

The reason for the facelift, says artistic director David Turner, is simply one of appearances.

"It's looking a little tired after 34 years. When people come to see the play they want to see it looking good. We have a reputation to maintain," he explains.

Strange success

If being the longest running play in the world isn't enough there are plenty more recordbreaking 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.

But the most mindboggling 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 Sim 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 The Mousetrap is by no means Christie's best play. Even Christie herself seemed bemused by its appeal.

"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.

Agatha Christie did not know the secret
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, who has been artistic director of The Mousetrap for 12 years, 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.

"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.

Piece of history

While not giving anything away, John Lyons, who currently plays 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.

Sir Richard Attenborough and Sheila Sim were the show's first and only big names
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 Albemarle theatre ticket agency in London still takes around 20 bookings for The Mousetrap every day.

"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.

From 21 June, those who do will see the production with a shiny new set.

Meanwhile, Agatha Christie fans have until Friday to bid for its predecessor which is being put out to grass.

Bidders should ring Jane Titchband on 0171-828 0600.

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