Theatre

Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap: What happens backstage...

The original set from 1952 is duplicated as is, for tours

The original set from 1952 is duplicated as is, for tours   | Photo Credit: Andreas Lambis

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We get behind the scenes when the longest-running West End show, based on Agatha Christie’s short story Three Blind Mice, comes to the city

Three blind mice, three blind mice,

See how they run, see how they run,

They all ran after the farmer’s wife,

Who cut off their tails with a carving knife...

It is almost half an hour to the opening show. The all-too-familiar, eerie tune of the nursery rhyme, runs in the background as part of a last-minute sound check. Miss Casewell, Giles Roleston and Sergeant Trotter are on stage, albeit not in character, stretching and warming up. “The last-minute nerves make them quite hyper!” Denise Silvey, the artistic director of the West End production, The Mousetrap, tells me.

The Mousetrap’s cast and crew during rehearsals

The Mousetrap’s cast and crew during rehearsals   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Earlier in the day, Agatha Christie’s characters from Three Blind Mice had come alive on stage: Christopher Wren, “a peculiar young man” in Mrs Boyle’s words, was exploring the nooks and corners of Monkswell Manor, occasionally marvelling at the exquisite woodwork loudly. During one of his antics, he popped from behind the curtains, trying to scare the rest who were engrossed in conversation about a serial murderer loitering in town.

This was, of course, part of the screenplay. He tried, but ended up laughing. The cast too burst out laughing, breaking character and joining him sharing a light moment on stage. Denise then said from near the lighting console, “Let’s take it again, shall we?” I am at Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao auditorium — silent and vast without the thronging audiences and the usual hullabaloo. The cast and crew, all strapped with mics and headphones, is knee-deep in consecutive run-throughs, as I walk around the set and backstage to catch glimpses of all that goes behind the making of the longest-running West End production.

An Agatha Christie masterpiece is what they are giving life to, on stage. Understandably so, the attention to detail in putting it together each time, is impressive. One would think that after 67 years and 28,000-odd shows, this would be a piece of cake. But, no. From recreating the original set from 1952 to ensuring the ornate clock on the mantelpiece is an exact replica of the one that still sits in London — it is quite a tedious process involving 61 backstage helpers from India and 15 from London, not to mention the contribution of collaborators. The extent of collaboration, is what defines the scale of this production brought to India by Mumbai-based advertising company, Blank Slate.

Elephant in the room

The two-hours-and-20-minutes-long play is set entirely in a single space — in the lobby of Victorian Monkswell Manor, a guest house nestled in the countryside, quite cut off from the rest when snowed in. In such scenarios, the set almost takes the importance of a character. And it does so, here as well. The set design which was used in 1952, has been handed down through every set of cast and crew to be recreated, especially on tours. Panels sporting ornate woodwork and defining elements which are mainly made of timber, overlap each other when observed from the backstage. There is a live snowfall outside the window and each character is sufficiently covered in snow, before they enter the manor. Doors mark the exits and entries of each character. In effect, the opening and shutting of doors — abrupt and otherwise, lends to the air of mystery.

Partners in crime
  • In 1959, the cast of The Mousetrap, armed with various props, gave a special performance at Wormwood Scrubs prison. During the performance, two prisoners escaped.
  • It was originally written by Agatha Christie as a short radio play Three Blind Mice to celebrate the 80th birthday of the late Queen Mary.
  • When it opened on November 25, 1952, Richard Attenborough and his fellow film star and wife Sheila Sim were cast in the leading roles.
  • Ever since the show moved to St Martin’s theatre in 1974, every prop has been replaced. Only the clock on the mantelpiece and the original wind machine are still in use to this day.
  • The late Deryck Guyler who died in 1999, provided the pre-recorded voice for the newsreader in the first act which is still in use. It was digitised to provide better quality.
  • The Mousetrap has three entries in the Guinness Book of Records, including: for the ‘longest continuous run of any show in the world’; ‘most durable’ actor (David Raven, who played Major Metcalf for 4,575 performances from July 22, 1957 until November 23, 1968); and ‘longest serving understudy’ (Nancy Seabrooke, who stood by as Mrs Boyle 6,240 times until March 12, 1994, and actually did so 72 times).

Mumbai-based architect Rajiv Majumdar is behind this particular set, identical to the permanent one back in St Martin’s theatre, London, where The Mousetrap has been playing for the past 67 years. “It took us 20 days to build it from scratch as per the design plan. It is almost identical. They arrived yesterday in truckloads,” says the Mumbai-based architect. The portable set will also travel to Bengaluru and Mumbai in the coming weeks.

All lit up

At the lighting console is Garry Hoare and this is his second time lighting The Mousetrap. “It is slightly different from the UK plan and we have toned down the lighting bits here because with the cast, all dressed in jackets and coats, it can get quite hot here. The plan has been handed down through the years — the basics are exactly the same,” says Garry, adding that the only thing that changes is probably the lighting near the fireplace and the radio. Playing with a genre like thriller is quite challenging, believes Garry, who has been in the field for 21 years. He goes on to say, “How you deal with pitch darkness is more important than lighting up the stage. In the UK too, the talk is more around darkness.” Abrupt cuts to pitch darkness, flickering lights and gradual fading appear often and also add to building the suspense. The on-stage lamps complete the design.

So, it is not a surprise that minute details like where one should stand and how one should move, strike director Denise. Taking the time out between a tight run-through, Denise compares the process to how it was last year. The same cast had performed in Mumbai in 2018. “We have explored the dynamics between characters more this time and tried to make it less stationary. The relationships between the characters evolve through time and the actors have brought that in, this time, because by now they are quite familiar with each other.” Interestingly, Denise has been part of The Mousetrap’s cast thrice in the past as Miss Casewell. “In fact, the day we go back to London marks 25 years of when I opened my very first Miss Casewell,” she concludes laughing.

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Printable version | Dec 12, 2019 1:48:55 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/agatha-christies-the-mousetrap-what-happens-backstage/article29942888.ece

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