Something unique happens at a production of “The Mousetrap,” a play written by Agatha Christie that’s been on-stage in London, England’s West End theater district for 70 years. There was a hiatus for the pandemic from May 16, 2020 until May 17, 2022. The play’s primary run is the longest in the history of world theater, and because the break was forced, no theater historians consider that it ever really left or lost its momentum. Theatergoers continue to flock to see it in London.
In the play, Christie has the cast giving strict orders to the audience to keep the plot’s major mystery a secret. It’s actually a clause in her original contract. While you may have heard of the play, chances are you don’t know much about the crime and who committed it. Audiences always enjoy being part of the show business game. They’ve been respecting Christie’s wishes since 1952.
“The Mousetrap” is not merely just some popular tourist attraction, either. The famous from near and far have sat in the stalls (as they say in Britain), as well as folks just like you and me. I saw Christie’s little gem of a whodunit in London in 2004.
“The Mousetrap” isn’t limited to London. It played on Broadway, has been staged and is still being staged by colleges and high schools, and was a professional production at the famous and invaluable Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo many years ago.
There’s something else about “The Mousetrap” that needs to be told. It’s never been made into a movie. Why? Again, Christie’s actual contract also stipulates that any motion picture producer who wants to turn the play into a film must wait until the end of its run. Apparently, that just might be never.
However, because of the imaginations of director Tom George and screenwriter Mark Chappell and their clever creative production titled “See How They Run,” Christie’s “The Mousetrap” is indeed now part of the cinematic landscape. Oh, the play itself is not a movie, but what if a murder takes place backstage at the popular West End production of “The Mousetrap”?
Let the mystery begin. In 1953, the play is celebrating its 100th performance. A creepy, crass and craven Hollywood producer-director named Leo Kopernick (Adrien Brody delivering a delicious scenery-chewing performance) is angling to make a film of “The Mousetrap” in spite of playwright Christie’s refusal to let it happen. Kopernick’s in London and he soon becomes a talkative ghost narrating the movie. Who killed him in the costume room?
There are ample reasons for someone wanting to dispatch the fellow. He definitely riled up the cast by telling all who would listen how he plans to alter some aspects of the mystery for the silver screen, such as giving it more of an action movie feel. Blackmailing people is part of his modus operandi. Kopernick is also at odds with his own screenwriter (Melvyn acted by David Oyelowo), who had once wished him dead. And, there’s Christie’s insistence that the play not be filmed.
Enter Scotland Yard. This is where director Granger and writer Chappell kick their story into high gear. To find the murderer, we follow the Scotland Yard duo of the droll, seen-it-all drunkard Police Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell), who’s partnered with the eager young uniformed Police Constable Stalker (Saorise Ronan), who loves movies and insists on writing absolutely everything down whether she’s investigating crime scenes, interviewing suspects, or meditating on motives. He drips with ennui. She’s a future pro.
A real-life person is part of this antic adventure in mysterious goings-on. Celebrated actor and director Richard Attenborough (an excellent Harris Dickinson) was a young man when he appeared in the original cast of “The Mousetrap.” He figures prominently in “See How They Run.”
“The Mousetrap” is a play filled with sincere winks and nods at the style of classic British drawing-room comedies that were popular before World War II. In the early 1950s, there’s some value in nostalgia because audiences were looking for something to take their minds off the post-war recovery. The movie is played with tongue firmly planted in cheek.
Rockwell’s Inspector Stoppard is a bit of a hangdog and carries himself with a languorous, seen-it-all demeanor. Ronan’s rookie wants to do a good job, follow the book, and get everything right. They make a fine team and their performances are fun to watch. When the comedy clicks, the laughs are solid. The entire cast understands how to let the jokes score. Does Agatha Christie show up? I’ll let you discover that.
Production values expertly mix a little bit of glamor, a touch of theatrical seediness, and fine panoramas of 1950s London architecture. Costumes and room settings ooze musty clutter and faded elegance. Composer Daniel Pemberton’s jazz-inspired music makes fine use of the double bass.
One of the treasures of “See How They Run,” which is playing only in theaters, are the bits of dialogue that are spoken as careful asides so that they impart a lot of worthwhile, albeit subtle, information to the audience. These are mostly British characters who are delightfully theatrical and speak well. The supporting actors and actresses are wonderful. It’s a pleasure listening to them talk.
As for the investigation of the murder of the Hollywood interloper, there’s an enjoyability quotient watching the investigative process that reaches high and repeatedly scores entertainment points. Whodunit? You can’t be serious.