Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap opened at London's New Ambassadors Theatre in 1952, moved to the St. Martin's Theatre in 1974 and has continued its majestic trundle through theater history to become the longest-running show in the entire world. It's like a lot of other English institutions — tea cozies, the Grenadier Guards' hot and impractical bearskin hats, red telephone booths, the royal family — that are much beloved, charmingly eccentric and, on the whole, pointless. On the play's sixtieth anniversary, in 2012, several British journalists mused about the reasons for its longevity. They mentioned the Japanese tourists who regularly attend, and also the Brits from outside London, who wouldn't dream of visiting the metropolis without seeing the show. The word "creaking" usually arose in these discussions, in conjunction with the word "plot." So why did the Arvada Center decide to mount this venerable warhorse? Anglophilia? Nostalgia? A chance to show off the considerable skills of the company's designers by putting them to work on the '50s costumes and the set — a fine old manor house, complete with wood paneling and suit of armor?
Still, there's something comforting about a murder mystery in the Miss Marple/ Hercule Poirot vein — even if it is less well-crafted and has a less juicy central character. This is the kind of mystery in which nothing much is at stake and you know you'll encounter no real blood or pain. The characters are familiar types: the nice young husband and wife, Giles and Mollie Ralston (but are they really as nice as they seem?); the terrifying dowager, Mrs. Boyle (although P. G. Wodehouse created more terrifying aunts for Bertie Wooster, and no one can match Oscar Wilde's formidable Lady Bracknell for hilariously illogical hauteur); the retired Major Metcalf (think Fawlty Towers); the comical foreigner Mr. Paravicini (all foreigners are comical in this kind of British play, but this one's scary, too); Christopher Wren, a fey, poetic youth (greetings again, Oscar); and Miss Casewell, the horsey, striding spinster.
The outline of the plot is familiar, too. The characters congregate at a country guest house run by the Ralstons. There's a blizzard outside, the roads are becoming impassible, and soon everyone will be snowed in together with no way of communicating with the outside world. There's word on the radio about a murder in London and a suspect wearing a dark overcoat, lighter scarf and soft felt hat. Wait a minute, you think. Wasn't that what Giles Ralston was wearing? Has he really been scouring the countryside for chicken wire all day, as he told his lovely wife? But then there's something odd about each guest in turn; every one of them seems to have something to hide, and everyone periodically gets cranky. It's great fun watching them annoy each other: Mrs. Boyle complains about the Ralstons' deficient hospitality; jolly hockeysticks Miss Casewell deliberately stokes Mrs. Boyle's ire; Wren, who claims to have been named for the famous architect of St. Paul's Cathedral, emits shrill peals of unexpected laughter. And Paravicini, who doesn't sound the least bit Italian, says things like, "Who am I? I am the man of mystery. I complete the picture." Eventually, Detective Sergeant Trotter arrives, having gallantly skied across the snow, to sort everything out. If all this isn't titillation enough, we also get sinister one-finger piano playing and invisible people whistling, and it's always the same tune: "Three Blind Mice."
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Presented by the Arvada Center through February 23, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 720-898-7200, arvadacenter.org.
By the second act, the fun wears a bit thin. The characters don't change, and the plot really is a creaker — though the way the crime gets solved upends the conventions of the genre. What keeps this production afloat is the excellence of the cast: Josh Robinson and Devon James as the Ralstons, Colin Alexander as Major Metcalf, Thadd Krueger as Christopher Wren, Graham Ward as Trotter and Megan Van De Hey as a sharply intriguing Miss Casewell. John Arp owns the place with his fake Central European accent as Paravicini. And it's so wonderful to see Kathleen M. Brady playing Mrs. Boyle after a too-long absence from the stage that everything feels a bit flat after her final exit.
Nothing really explains The Mousetrap's longevity, but it's at least a cheery way to pass a cold winter evening — followed, of course, by buttered crumpets and a cuppa.