The Mousetrap – the longest-running show in theatre history – opened on November 25, 1952. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.
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Story time. History time.
“Well darlings, we may get a few months out of it, but it won’t break any records.”
Well, she was wrong. They didn’t get a few months out of it. They got three-quarters of a century out of it. And it’s still going strong.
And, yes, it broke the record. Broke it 64 years ago. So breaking records doesn’t even come into the discussion anymore. For that matter, this discussion doesn’t land on the setting records square. No, darlings, this little number owns the record. Has owned it for decades. And will own it forever.
You guessed? Good on ya, got it in one. Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. It opened in London on this day, November 25th, 1952. Opened at the Ambassador’s Theatre. Want some perspective? Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation was six months in the future. Her father George VI had only recently died. The 1951 Festival of Britain was just a year in the past. Mae West had been on the London stage just four years previously. Nobody had heard of John Rillington and 10 Rillington Place – that nightmare in Notting Hill was still in the oven. Other novelties were lighting shop windows after closing time and flashing advertising signs. The war and rationing had done for both of them and they’d only just returned.
So that was the world – the London – The Mousetrap was born into.
And nobody expected much from it. Including its creator, Agatha Christie, for it was she who said, “we may get a few months out of it, darlings, but it won’t break any records.”
Let’s run the numbers. A few months… let’s say a few months was four months, 16 weeks, eight shows a week. 128 performances.
Well, that was out by about 28,000 performances.
For the record, The Mousetrap broke the record on Saturday, April 12th, 1958. That was its 2,239th performance, making it the longest run in this country’s history. Bears repeating: that was in 1958. Sixty-four years ago.
It’ll be closing in on 30,000 performances now.
Put it in spaceship terms, other shows get launched and maybe go up and orbit the earth – or even the moon – a few times. And that’s their ride. The Mousetrap went past Pluto a decade ago or so and is chugging along very nicely, merrily making its way out of the solar system.
A couple of nice factoids about it.
The Mousetrap is an enlargement of Three Blind Mice, a short play which Agatha Christie wrote for broadcasting. She wrote the radio play as a birthday present for Queen Mary. It’s based on a short story, which in turn was based on the radio play. Christie asked that the story not be published as long as it ran as a play in the West End. So, sure enough, it’s still not been published in the UK.
Christie gave the rights of the play to her grandson. Thereby taking care of him for the rest of his life. And his heirs for theirs.
Productions are very strictly controlled. As long as it’s running in the West End, only one other production in the UK can be mounted each year. I daresay nobody alive today will see the film adaptation because it cannot be produced until the West End production has been closed for at least six months.
Agatha Christie died in 1976. By then the play had made more than £3 million pounds.
The great actor Richard Attenborough was in the first cast. As was his wife Sheila Sim. They took a 10% profit-participation in the production, which was paid for out of their combined weekly salary. Attenborough said it was “the wisest business decision” he ever made.
The play has also made theatrical history by having an original “cast member” survive all the cast changes since its opening night. The late Deryck Guyler can still be heard, via a recording, reading the radio news bulletin in the play to this present day.
The set’s been changed twice. First in 1965 and then in 1999.
But one prop survives from the original opening – the clock which sits on the mantelpiece of the fireplace in the main hall.
The cast gets changed annually. So The Mousetrap’s everlasting run in the West End has so far been borne along by over 500 actors. Including London Walks guide, Andy Hallett.
When in 1974 it changed homes, moving from the Ambassador’s Theatre to the larger St Martin’s Theatre next door, the last night at the Ambassador’s was Saturday, March 23rd, 1974 and the first night at its new home St Martin’s was Monday, March 25th, which enabled it to keep its initial run status.
And, then cometh the pandemic and Lockdown. The West End was forced to turn off its lights on March 16th 2020. For the first time in 68 years The Mousetrap goes dark is how the show’s timeline puts it. It reopened on May 17th, 2021. Cue the timeline again: The Mousetrap becomes the first show to reopen to lead the West End out of lockdown.
As one headline put it, The Mousetrap snaps back.
It’s stirring stuff. So moving. And lockdown schmockdown, bears repeating, the run is still regarded as continuous. Which is how it should be.
The play’s storyline is set in “the present.” In other words, England as it was around the time when the play came out in 1952. So if you want to time travel – want to go back to the immediate postwar period – get a taste, so to speak, of the postwar continuation of World War II rationing, well, head to the Great Hall of Monkswell Manor in Berkshire. In short, go and see The Mousetrap.
And yes, that’s the Today in London recommendation. Very much a yesterday in London recommendation. Quite a few yesterdays ago. The yesterdays of 1952 to be precise.
Oh and do be sure and see that grizzled veteran, the old wooden counter in the foyer of the theatre. Emblazoned across it is the legend This performance is number…
and then beneath it is the number of whatever performance it is. It’s like an old-fashioned, manual scoreboard. It’s Selfie Heaven in the heart of the West End of London.
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