It’s only appropriate to open an article about Agatha Christie with a mystery about which of her works will be performed in the capital this month.
Clue 1: It holds the Guinness World Record for the longest-running West End show, with almost 30,000 renditions since it was first performed in 1952.
Clue 2: It was adapted into a short story and later into a stage play from a radio play originally broadcast in 1947 as a birthday present for Queen Mary.
Clue 3: The production by Crossroads Live Australia has been touring the country since October (2022) to celebrate the stage play’s 70th anniversary.
The answer, of course, is The Mousetrap, a murder mystery that follows seven strangers who become stranded together during a snowstorm, one of whom is suspected to be a killer.
However, when Australian theatre stalwart Robyn Nevin was first invited by producer John Frost to direct this tour of the classic, she had her doubts.
“I hadn’t seen the play. I was very aware of its history of success in London, but beyond that, I didn’t really know very much about Agatha Christie,” she says.
But Ms Nevin, who served as the artistic director at the Queensland and Sydney theatre companies, was immediately convinced when she read the play herself.
“It’s terribly well written. It holds up really well. The characters are very interesting because each of them is carrying the burden of a secret from their past which, of course, interested me enormously because there’s a psychological depth to the characters that you can explore in the rehearsal process and which we did indeed explore,” she explains.
“The plot is very cleverly constructed and the revelation at the end works terribly well. It was ultimately effective as a piece of writing, entertaining, funny and also quite deep.”
Ms Nevin says the depth comes from the dark inspiration for the play, the real-life testimony of a 10-year-old British boy against his foster parents after the death of his brother in the 1940s.
The play itself follows seven adult characters: the newlyweds running the guest house, a spinster, an architect, a retired Army major, a man who claims his car overturned in a drift and a jurist.
When the characters learn that a local woman has been murdered and a second murder then takes place during the play, it’s up to a detective (and the audience) to figure out who the killer is.
“At interval, people on either side of me just start spontaneously talking about who they think is responsible for the crime and they all have very strong convictions,” Ms Nevin says.
“And they’re all wrong, and then after there’s just the sense of enjoyment of having been tricked and manipulated in such a clever and satisfying way by Agatha Christie’s plot turns.”
The show has toured Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth so far, but Ms Nevin says she still hasn’t met anyone who has successfully identified the murderer.
When the play ends, the audience is traditionally inducted into the Mousetrap ‘family’ and asked not to reveal the surprise finish to anyone after leaving the theatre.
One of the suspects is retired army officer Major Metcalf, played by Adam Murphy, who says he took inspiration from Fawlty Towers and old English films.
“It’s great to [act in the] play because obviously we know what’s happening, and we know all the clues we’re laying down,” he says.
“But the thing that amazes me so much is that there is a lot of laughter in it as well.
“There’s a lot of jokes that are there for a relief valve.”
Like Ms Nevin, Mr Murphy says he was only aware of the play before he was cast in the production.
“I actually was lucky enough to audition for two things at the same time and I was offered both so I had a choice,” he says.
“The fact that it was Agatha Christie … and I knew that it was part of history as being one of the longest-running plays ever, I just had to be part of it.”
The Mousetrap will be at Canberra Theatre Centre from Thursday, 11 May, to Sunday, 21 May. For more information, visit Canberra Theatre Centre.