25 November 2022 marks the 70th anniversary of Agatha Christie whodunnit The Mousetrap premiering on the London stage, at the Ambassadors Theatre.
In fact, the chintzy murder mystery debuted earlier that year in Nottingham, before touring the country with a slew of previews. But even those unfamiliar with the plot know about The Mousetrap's tenacious London residency (since 1974 at St. Martin's Theatre), which only briefly stalled during Covid, and makes Elvis' Vegas occupancy look like a half-arsed flash in the pan.
So what did the first critics have to say about the play? We've leafed through the papers of the time, and it's a mixed bag to say the least...
"I felt faintly cheated"
Imagine you're Richard Attenborough. (He was the first actor to play the role of Detective Sergeant Trotter, alongside his wife, Sheila Sim, who was Mollie Ralston.) On the morning of 26 November 1952, you turn to the notices in the Daily Herald, and your heart lifts when you see the title: "Agatha's Puzzle is Incredible". You're about to order a bottle of bubbly. Only to read the rest of this cold-blooded notice, which decries the play as "glib", complains "the climax left us more dazed than excited", and moans that the reviewer was left feeling "faintly cheated." And as for you, Richard Attenborough, you were "lacking presence". By the way, when they said "incredible", they meant far-fetched, not y'know, incredible. What do those initials stand for, P.L. Mannock, Pretty Loathsome?
"I solved it halfway through the first act"
Turns out they didn't have spoiler alerts in the 1950s: The Tatler's critic recklessly divulges the first-act murderee in their write-up, if not ruining, then certainly spoiling The Mousetrap for thousands of would-be theatregoers. At least they don't commit the cardinal sin of spilling the beans blood on who the murderer is, though they do brag: "...if you remember Louis Dubedat in The Devil's Disciple" [we don't, but go on] "asking whether anyone had seen his wife's marriage lines, you may solve the problem halfway through the first act. As I did." Can you imagine sitting next to this one at the theatre?
"Should run for a long time"
The Bradford Observer knew their theatrical onions. Describing The Mousetrap, previewing at the Leeds Grand at the time, as one of Agatha Christie's "most ingenious detective plays", the writer wraps up their notice with the eerily prescient line: "this play should run for a long time in the metropolis". Wonder if they previewed horse races too... could have made a lot of dosh.
"Would baffle an ostrich"
The Sketch's December 1952 review of The Mousetrap is favourable on the whole: although it's not as good as Christie's previous stage outing [insert highly offensive title here], it's produced with enthusiasm, and a sound cast, says our reviewer, who thankfully for readers of the time, is loath to give even an "arch hint" as to whodiddit. The plot, however, is a bit tangled, they continue, while "some of the coincidences, I feel, would baffle an ostrich." Stick THAT on a tube poster, why don'tcha.
Reviews sourced from the excellent British Newspaper Archive.