‘I mean, imagine how some unfortunate Master Criminal would feel, on coming down to do a murder at the old Grange, if he found that not only was Sherlock Holmes putting in the weekend there, but Hercule Poirot, as well.’ – Bertie Wooster / P.G. Wodehouse.
The world can broadly be divided into two discrete parts. Those who have seen the play, The Mousetrap, and those who have not. In the fashion of today’s argot, let’s call it ‘The Mousetrap Binary.’ This Agatha Christie classic has been playing in the United Kingdom for more than a millennium. Forgive the exaggeration, but it does seem that way. Though I am reliably informed that it made its debut in London’s West End in 1952, and has staged well over 25,000 shows worldwide (and counting), and thousands of actors have trod the boards under its banner. Any tour operator, herding holiday makers on a chartered flight to London, must necessarily include The Mousetrap (tickets pre-purchased), along with compulsory visits to the Tower of London, Madame Tussauds, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Kew Gardens, National Museum, Buckingham Palace, the West End and other well-known attractions. Shopping at Oxford and Bond Streets is a must to lighten your wallets. I have travelled to London, several times over the decades, but have shrewdly managed to avoid The Mousetrap, like the plague. A serendipitously apt description.
However, my singular sense of overweening and inverted pride in claiming to be among the very few not to have seen this two-act whodunit, came to nought recently. The British, being British, still smarting from having lost their ‘Jewel in the Crown,’ constantly seek to keep their ‘subjects’ entertained and reminded of the grandeur that once was. And most of us are suckers for their smooth sales talk. Some of us even talk and write like them. C’est la vie, if you’ll pardon the French. It is entirely possible that the average Englishman, some more average than others, does not want to have anything to do with The Mousetrap. One must doff one’s hat to his sound common sense and judgement. Then again, he may have been stricken by a crushing ennui, having watched it so many times, including having to escort friends and relatives from all over the world, come to visit. One sympathises. Even the avid tourists to the UK are beginning to blanch every time someone mentions The Mousetrap. Phantom of the Opera, Cats and The Lion King are now the pre-eminent favourites and even these wonderful musicals are starting to fray at the edges.
However, the determined management of The Mousetrap franchise is not about to curl up and die. No way, Jose. I should have said James, but it doesn’t rhyme. Undeterred, they have decided to take the play to the far corners of the globe, particularly to areas where large swathes of the population continue to hold dear, all things British. And what better place to start than right here in India, a country that was in British thrall for over 250 years. Catering to the thousands of Anglophile Indians who may or may not have seen it in England, who may or may not have read the play, who may or may not have watched it on YouTube – but all of them keen to be seen at the venue. A peer group thing. (Were you at The Mousetrap on Sunday? Which row?) After all, in a few decades from now, Indians may not even be conversing in English any longer, if the present ruling dispensation had its way.
Thus it came about that, when we saw the advertisement in the newspapers, here in the once garden city of Bangalore, tickets online sold like hotcakes. ‘The longest running play in the world,’ ‘The original production from London’s West End,’ screamed the headlines. Never mind that the price spectrum of the tickets ranged between Rs.1000/- and 7000/-. Give or take (I gave). I must bow down and confess that I was among those who went online and did the deed. I bought the cheapest available tickets for the family. It turned out to be a wise call.
We were seated in the balcony which was all right. The ticketing information did warn us that these were seats with ‘partially obscured view.’ I had no idea what that meant, precisely. On taking our seats we discovered that this in no way hindered a full view of the stage. It’s just that a mottled glass fencing, about four feet high at the front of the balcony, could prevent a perfectly clear view. The glass barricade could also prevent people from falling over to their instant deaths on to the ground floor. At least, that’s my best guess.
There was, however, one problem. While the glass barrier did not block our view completely, it did present us with a strange viewing sensation. The top half of the actors was clear of the glass, while the bottom half had to be viewed through the glass. As the glass itself was of dubious quality, the bottom part of the actors’ anatomy was somewhat distorted. We were thus treated to watching a play where all the protagonists looked like something out of a ‘Hall of Distorted Mirrors’ in Disneyland. Comic it was but we hadn’t come to watch a slapstick affair. Can’t blame the organisers, though. They gave us adequate warning that if we wanted to go on the cheap, we had to be prepared for a partially obscured view. Distorted would have been a more apt description.
Then there is the inevitable nuisance. The mobile phones. They do request us over the tannoy, to switch off our mobiles. An instruction that is scrupulously observed in the breach. The over-excited members of the audience frantically WhatsApping messages to friends and relatives worldwide, along with photographs and video snippets of ‘their unforgettable evening at The Mousetrap.’ At one point the darkened auditorium looked like a gathering of mourners at a silent candlelight vigil for the loss of their favourite pop idol! Predictably, someone gets strangled in complete darkness. In the play, I mean. All we hear is a scream and a dying gargle. The stage is pitch dark so we don’t know whodunit.
At this point, a twenty minute interval is announced, during which half the hall disgorge themselves to do those things people do when they disgorge themselves after being strapped to their seats for over an hour. Most of them trot off to the loos, others for a snack or smoke, and quite a few to call their homes to check with their domestics if their pet dogs have had their din-dins and walkies. Everyone then rushes back when the second bell rings just before the curtain goes up. It’s time to reveal the murderer.
The final denouement takes an age. Everybody is assembled on stage and we ‘suspect everyone’, as the advert advised us. We know who was ‘done in’ because she is no longer among those present on stage. As to who did the dastardly deed, nobody has a clue. In keeping with all Agatha Christie stories, we look for Opportunity and Motive, which all the characters appeared to have had in spades. And we are still clueless. Remember, there’s no Poirot or Miss Marple in the play to handhold us. Finally, all is revealed. Goodness me, so that was the culprit. Fancy that. I would never have suspected him, not in a million years. I always thought it was the butler, only to learn after the play was over that there was no butler in the cast! That’s how well I followed the play.
So there you are. The Mousetrap was presented to us with much advance fanfare and grossly overpriced tickets, not to forget that the play’s reputation greatly preceded it. For all that, I felt the play was a bit of a let-down. An anti-climax. When it came to the curtain call, the actors took their customary bow, curtsying elegantly to rapturous applause. One of the actors then proceeded to tell us not to reveal the murderer’s identity as it might spoil it for those coming to the subsequent shows. He needn’t have worried. I still have no idea who the murderer was.