Sunday, January 13, 2013


The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie. Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s Playhouse Theatre. Cast: Ensemble. Diamond Anniversary Production Directed by Gary Young. Season till January 20.

Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap is a theatrical phenomenon, wrapped in a mystery, which comes from some parallel universe which has little to do with any time and place we know.

It’s a bit like a Doctor Who time travel episode, where he goes back to some strange unrealistic past, but this time around there’s no Time Lord or Tardis to give the story a sci-fi context.

The Tardis, however, did give us some sense of normality when it first came into view back in November, 1963, - incidentally the day after another surreal event, the assassination of President John F Kennedy – because it took on the familiar shape of a police telephone box.

Likewise, Christie’s The Mousetrap, which started ‘life’ as a thirty minute radio play, Three Blind Mice, as part of the 80th birthday celebrations for Queen Mary,  is shrouded in familiarity.

That’s the  Agatha Christie reality show, where a group of middle-class character types, fueling suspicion and undoubtedly awash with dark secrets, meet in a secluded snowbound manor where someone has murder on their mind.

Queen Elizabeth’s grandmother, it appears, loved Christie’s work as did millions of devoted fans who made her books the most read in the English-speaking world behind The Bible and Shakespeare.

So it’s perhaps understandable that the 1947 radio play should morph into the 1952 West End stage production, starring husband and wife actors Sir Richard Attenborough and Sheila Sim, with little more than a name change.

There was already a play called Three Blind Mice.

The play was a charming little drawing room whodunit – with eight characters and a dash of humor – which has a murder in the first act and lot’s of talk in the second.

Critics and commentators are discouraged from examining the plot too closely in reviews for fear of accidentally publishing too many clues or, what producers call, a spoiler.

The Mousetrap is widely recognised as a charming little piece of classic middle-class theatre – good fun but hardly great drama – but one aspect of the play is talked about endlessly.

Now come has it been on the West End stage for the past 60 years and broken more records then those angry Yanks when John Lennon said The Beatles were bigger than Jesus or was it Elvis?

In November 2012 it topped the 25,000 performance mark in the West End and it is still going strong at home and abroad, including Australia and New Zealand.

There’s more written about the trivia surrounding The Mousetrap, and the legendary statistics, than the play itself.

My personal favourite is the one where Christie addressed cast concerns about the second act with: “I should stop worrying and get-off to bed.

“I think we might get a little run out of it.”

The spoiler phobia is such that the narrative is difficult to share, but there is one dark secret contained within The Mousetrap, that is seldom mentioned  and that’s the real-life death which triggered Christie’s thinking in the story.

Generally, there’s only one youngster who is referred to in The Mousetrap mythology and  that’s Christie’s grandson, Mathew Pritchard, who was nine-years-old when the play was first produced.

The writer gave the son of her only daughter, Rosalind, the rights to the play before it was realised that there was more than, ‘a nice little run’, to be had from it.

However, the ghost of another little boy, 12-year-old Dennis O’Neill, looms large over The Mousetrap.

There were no twists and turns in his little life except, perhaps, for the injuries he sustained while in the care of a Shropshire farmer, Reginald Gough, and his wife Esther.

Dennis, and his brother Terence, were the subject of shocking headlines in the British press as the Allied troops were flooding into Europe to destroy the Nazi threat in 1945.

Through a series of failures of ‘duty of care’ Dennis and Terence had been fostered to a couple who – in the words of Terence’s 2010 book Someone To Love Us – had ‘forced them into brutality and neglect.’

Dennis died as a result of the ill treatment he received from the Goughs.

The ensuing court case, which saw the Goughs sent to trial and imprisoned, shocked and horrified post-war Britain and led to a major inquiry under Sir William Monckton and ultimately changes to the foster laws.

It’s easy to see why people were so shaken with the O’Neill story when you read or sing Vera Lynn’s anthem to a peaceful and sublime post-war future, White Cliffs of Dover.

Therell be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover
Just you wait and see

Therell be love and laughter
And peace ever after
When the world is free

The shepherd will tend his sheep
The valley will bloom again
And Jimmy will go to sleep
In his own little room again

The British dilemma was that they were what the Yanks call the good guys but still 12-year-old Dennis was dead, while being cared for by responsible adults, who were supposed to protect him.

Why wasn't Dennis - like Jimmy - snuggling down to sleep in his own little room again?

It would appear – that along with the British public – the case gave Christie a rare opportunity to be inspired by the headlines of the day.

I sincerely don’t believe that revealing this connection is a ‘spoiler’ as the link was widely reported when  Terence O’Neill's  book was launched in 2010 and the real-life story is nothing to do with the final bombshell.

However, I do think it’s important that the memory of young Dennis O’Neill, and what happened to him, is not superseded by what is in truth mere light entertainment.

For more info on the Dennis O'Neill story see

Vera Lynn sings White Cliffs of Dover.

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