I was a little surprised to find the touring version of this West End war horse turning up so close to town. But maybe the producers think the London production sells well enough to tourists so a little local competition won’t do any harm.
Whatever the reason, it turned out to be an unexpected joy to revisit this play, which I have seen only once before, many years ago, in its London home.
Over the years it has become, of course, a period piece. Set in the days before mobile phones and when people could still use their ration book as a form of identification, these features are lovingly retained. As are the somewhat clipped oh-so-British accents of the owners of Monkswell Manor where the action takes place. That aside I found the script to be surprisingly fresh and the characters accessible and relatable.
The story concerns the new owners of Monkswell Manor, Giles and Mollie Ralston, who, on their very first day in business, find themselves snowed-in with an assortment of apparently random guests and a news story of a murderer on the loose. Fortunately Sgt Trotter is sent along from the local police to help keep them all safe. Needless to say it transpires that one of those at Monkswell Manor is also the murderer.
That’s really all you need to know going in. The story is efficiently told, the characters clear and quirky enough to each bring suspicion on themselves. There are some humorous moments, a little frisson of tension but, it has to be said, no obvious hook to make the play stand out. It’s continued success now is largely fuelled by its longevity. You just have to see it to find out what it is that’s kept it going since 1952. But there has to be something else going on as well.
What you find is a warmly welcoming set with a snowy gale blowing all the various guests in to warm themselves by the glow of the open fire. It really does look like the kind of place you want to be on a cold winter’s night. The star billing goes to Susan Penhaligon as Mrs Boyle, the guest who finds nothing to her liking (a prototype, surely, for Joan Sanderson’s hotel guest from hell in Fawlty Towers). She chews up the other characters like Margaret Rutherford in bad mood! But it’s really a proper ensemble piece. Understudy Edith Kirkwood played Mollie Ralston delightfully. David Alcock was in equal parts charming, irritating and sinister as the only unexpected guest, Mr Paravicini. Lewis Chandler was as camp as he could be playing Christopher Wren whilst still making the character real.
So Monkswell Manor turns out to be a thoroughly lovely and delightful place to spend the evening. But despite this it still leaves you unable to put your finger on what has made the play such a unique phenomenon.
The Mousetrap tour is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford until 21 September 2019.