By BRUCE DENNILL
Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap / Directed by Jonathan Tafler / Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg
Spoiler alert. This play has been running continuously for 65 years, and the plot hasn’t changed. If you played that Six Degrees Of Separation game, you’d quickly discover someone in your circle who’s seen the play. Hell, you may even know someone who’s acted in the piece – there are hundreds of artists in that long list. Point being, audiences may have an inkling, or something a little more than that, of what occurs in the play, and staging a piece with that sort of background comes with all sorts of challenges.
Pieter Toerien’s latest production of The Mousetrap, directed by Jonathan Tafler, gets around that hurdle by doing the small things very well indeed. There’s a slight style refresh in the moving forward of the year in which the story is set from 1952 to 1962, but other than a couple of discreet musical references and perhaps the cut of a costume or two, that doesn’t add to or detract from proceedings in any significant way.
Rather, what makes this a standout version of a play that many will love and even more will be familiar with is the tight, clean nature of every piece of the action. It may be down to detailed and specific direction from Tafler, or it may be that the talented cast are especially dedicated to delivering on the minutia of the script. Of particular note is the precision of the dialogue, the nature of which helps to highlight the shrewdness of the banter between the characters – which is plentiful, with there being relatively few moments where any of the eight-strong cast is on stage alone for too long.
And the personalities of the visitors to the Monkswell Manor Guest House ensure there is plenty to talk about, and a range of sometimes violently opposing perspectives. This is an excellent ensemble performance, with the complex, changing chemistries between characters getting to know each other and then doubting what they discover being believable throughout.
Melissa Haiden as the earnest but anxious hostess Mollie Ralston is excellent. Michele Maxwell’s Mrs Boyle is cantankerous and crotchety and difficult to like. Matthew Lotter as the animated architect-to-be Christopher Wren (yes – an old joke, but a durable one) offers wonderful levity, even if his humour is often rather dark. Malcolm Terrey, as the hale and helpful Major Metcalf, embodies the sort of chap you want in your corner and English actor Mark Wynter imbues the mysterious Mr Paravicini with a certain coal-edged impishness.
Perhaps the most regular scene-stealer, though, is Aidan Scott as the thorough and tremendously sincere young Detective Sergeant Trotter, who arrives at Monkswell to follow up a lead in the investigation of a crime in nearby London.
Other themes criss-cross through what becomes a murder mystery (even if you’ve never had any knowledge of the play, it’s by Agatha Christie, and if she’s written a character, they have a solid chance of not making it through to the end of the narrative), adding intriguing, unsettling depth. There are suggestions of sexual deviancy and, considerably more bleakly, stories of children being abused – the latter inspiring noticeable (if cleverly disguised) reactions from some of the guests.
Even if you’ve seen the play before – perhaps several times – this is an excellent production to re-establish your enthusiasm for a compelling mystery played out in real time on stage. For Christie rookies, this will be a bar-setter you’ll be lucky to better. It’s beautifully put together and presented, and superbly underlines why the piece has had such remarkable longevity.