Review of The Mousetrap at Kirkwood Theatre Guild

    Once again the trap has sprung, to the tune of “Three Blind Mice.”

    This time it is the Kirkwood Theatre Guild that is producing Agtha Christie’s The Mousetrap.  As you know, it is in its London production the longest running play in the world, having first opened on November 25, 1952, running continuously to this day except for a COVID-19 interruption from March 16, 2020, to May 17, 2021.

    Each performance ends with the leading actor, after the curtain call, stepping forward to ask the audience to swear not to reveal the ending or which character was the murderer.

    I am told that this secrecy was preserved by audiences until the appearance of the internet, which has ended all secrets. But having sworn to silence at the Kirkwood production, I certainly shall not reveal that ending here.

    Christie was fascinated by a news report of the guilt of a farmer and his wife who had abused children assigned to them as foster parents. The abuse was so severe that in 1945 the youngest of the children died. The play is set a few years later, in 1952, when the husband is still imprisoned but the wife has been released. Christie built her play on these actual events, extending them by imagining that someone – the oldest child, now an adult, or another relative of the children – might decide that the imprisonment of the farmer and his wife was not punishment enough, that others had failed in their responsibilities, and this person was determined to take his or her revenge on those others. 

    The play takes place in the main sitting-room at Monkswell Manor, a large building recently converted to a guesthouse by a young couple, Mollie and Giles Ralston. It’s the kind of set for a one-set play that the Kirkwood Theatre Guild almost always does well, with Jacki Goodall the designer of this one (though the old theatre professor in me sort of wishes the attractive arches over two entrances had been given the 3-d effect). Mollie is alone, waiting for their first guests and listening to the radio news and its report of the murder of a woman named Maureen Lyon, the name of the farmer’s wife.

    The guests soon arrive: Christopher Wren, a  talkative, rather flighty young man who claims his parents were admirers of the great architect; Mrs. Boyle, an older woman who complains about everything; Major Mectcalf, retired from the army, still with the posture and the manner; Miss Casewell, a strange, aloof young woman; and an unexpected fifth guest, Mr. Paravicini, who may or may not be Italian with an accent that may or may not be fake and who says his car has overturned in a snowdrift. The snowstorm has closed all the roads, he reports, meaning Monkswell Manor is now isolated. Next day, the phones go dead. That’s what happens when you’re in an Agatha Christie play.

    But before that, Mollie takes a call from the superintendent of the local police, informing her that he has sent a Sergeant Trotter to Monkswell Manor. Trotter soon arrives on skis, climbing into the house through the large window in the sitting-room. He explains that a notebook found at the scene of Maureen Lyon’s murder contained the address of Monkswell Manor with the words “Three Blind Mice.” A note pinned to the corpse stated, “This is the First.” Trotter is to find out what connection anyone at the Manor might have to the murdered woman or to the three foster children, and to warn them that they might be in danger. The police suspect the older boy of being the killer. Trotter firmly but politely questions each of them. If they seem to be holding something back, he warns them, more firmly and less politely, that the could be risking their lives if they don’t tell him everything and anything that might help find the killer. Before long they are becoming suspicious of each other. Christopher Wren gets the worst of it, being strange and about the right age to be the older brother. 

    As the evening goes along and the guests move about the house and settle in, Major Metcalf confronts Mrs. Boyle with the knowledge that she was one of the magistrates who had assigned the children to the foster parents; she denies any responsibility for what happened to them. When the major departs, Mrs. Boyle listens to the radio alone, “Three Blind Mice” is whistled, the lights go out, we hear a struggle, Mollie comes into the room, turns on the lights, and finds Mrs. Boyle collapsed by her chair, dead.

    I might note that the murderer had no need to turn off the lights as no one else was about. But then we in the audience would have seen who the murderer is, and it’s too soon for that.

    To get there, we have to have more sniping among the guests and some sympathetic alliances and an elaborate scheme by Trotter to re-enact the positions of the guests at the time of the murder. This leaves Mollie alone with the killer, whom we can now see, as she is reminded  that she was the schoolteacher of the abused children and had failed to answer a letter from the younger boy, asking to be saved from the farm. Because of an illness, she did not see the letter until after the boy’s death, though her failure to help the children still haunts her. As the killer places hands about her neck, she is rescued, and everyone explains who they really are or aren’t or maybe just who we always thought they are. And the trap has caught the third blind mouse, though not the person the whistler hoped it would be.

    Sarah Lynn Holt directed a production that keeps us alert and guessing. Christie’s comic notes may have been downplayed a little – no harm – with Jesse O’Freel’s Christopher Wren getting most of them and making the most of them. Julia Gilbert and Alec Hatchell are a loving young couple as Mollie and Giles Ralston, distracted by all that must be done and deeply disturbed by Trotter’s suspicions, with Gilbert successfully bearing much of the weight of the production. Robert Jones keeps things going as Sergeant Trotter, always hitting exactly the right attitude. Julie Healey, playing against type, makes Mrs.Boyle thoroughly unpleasant. Will Shaw has the proper military bearing and a sensitivity to the concerns of the others as Major Metcalf. Uche Ijei maintains Miss Casewell as pretty much a blank slate until the final revelations. Mike De Pope gives Mr. Paravicini a pretty convincing Italian accent and manner.

    Costume Designer Kayla Dressman reminded me of how graceful those longer post-war skirts could be, as did those who wore them; Dressman dressed the men well too. Stu Safranski’s lights are bright or dark as needed. Jacob Baxley designed the sound, crucial at several points. Lucy Bowe and Miriam Whatley manage Properties, and Whatley manages the stage. Technical Director is Stephanie Robinson, and Elizabeth Grun is Artistic Manager, a position I am not familiar with. 

    Kirkwood Theatre Guild’s production of The Mousetrap makes the old girl look good.

    —Bob Wilcox

    Photo by Dan Donovan