The case of the Covid-compliant murder: how The Mousetrap is snapping back to life

<span>Photograph: Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Getty Images

The London West End is filled with ghost shows. Frontages still advertise productions that were frozen on 16 March last year, when the government advised against theatre-going. Some of the shows would have finished long ago, such as John Kani’s Kunene and the King, starring Antony Sher, which was on a limited run. Others, including Come from Away and Les Misérables, might reasonably have been expected to survive a hiatus. Both are making plans to reopen.

But only one play was entitled to assume its survival until the end of quarantining: Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, at St Martin’s theatre. The whodunnit opened in 1952, and endured the cold war, IRA, al-Qaida and Islamic State terrorism to become the world’s longest-running show. Due to Covid, its 69 years are no longer continuous, but the show is scheduled to resume, after a 15-month pandemic gap, on 17 May: British theatre’s most invincible hit leading the return to work.

“It’s a symbol of the West End,” says Adam Spiegel, the play’s producer, sitting masked beside an open window in the St Martin’s bar. “So it needs to be at the front of theatre’s reopening. I don’t think there is another show or theatre that can so personify the defiance of the industry.” However – appropriately if alarmingly – there is suspense: “It won’t actually be confirmed until the 10th whether we can open on the 17th.” If that date is pushed back, that would surely be a shattering blow? “It would be an enormous inconvenience – an act of real vandalism against the industry. Our view is that 17 May can’t slip.”

Actors will be temperature-checked at the stage door then stay masked until they go on

Outside the theatre, a board lists in gold paint the names of the actors who were appearing in the show in March 2020, when it closed. This feature will be redesigned with a sliding panel that can be quickly changed, as this is a production in which every performer is also an understudy. Spiegel has employed two casts who will rehearse and work completely separately, and appear in alternating runs of three performances. If an actor were to test positive, the other cast – contracted to be available and in reach of the theatre in their time off – will immediately take over for 10 days while the other group recuperates. Quarantine rules would prevent the usual theatre practice of one absentee being replaced by a stand-in.

“It doubles the costs,” says Spiegel, “but it’s the only way of doing it.” Duplicate actors are only plausible for small-cast shows, so the producer hopes there will be new Covid guidelines, published before theatres reopen, that will allow the business to function without losing a whole cast when someone has a positive or false positive test.

The capacity of St Martin’s is 550. Under social distancing, around half the seats can be occupied, although the exact figure depends on the pattern of bookings. “If you come on your own, you use up three seats. So I would ideally like people to come in groups of exactly six. Under the rule of six, that’s the magic number, but six is the least likely group of theatre-goers, which averages out at two point something or other.”

Spiegel expects to get around 250 in on an average night “which is financially unsustainable in the long term but I think is worth doing for a shortish period.” The scattered audience will be watching action that is also socially distanced. Actors will be temperature-checked at the stage door, then stay masked until on stage. The blocking (positioning of people on the set) will keep the characters at least three metres apart. Actors pride themselves on hitting their marks on stage, but if they don’t in this production, they might be arrested. “A kiss was taken out,” says Derek Griffiths, who plays Major Metcalf in the resumed production. “And a few hugs,” adds Paul Hilliar, cast as Detective Sergeant Trotter.

Such precautions are crucial because producers cannot insure shows against loss. Spiegel says no underwriters will insure against a show closing down as a result of Covid cases among cast or crew, or a new government ruling: “What we want is insurance, underwritten by the government, that means producers and promoters will be reimbursed the costs of reopening if there is another lockdown.”

&#x002018;There&#x002019;s a huge shakiness in the business&#x002019; &#x002026; Derek Griffiths.
‘There’s a huge shakiness in the business’ … Derek Griffiths. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

This request has so far been refused. “Because of that, some producers aren’t reopening,” says Spiegel, but he has decided to “take the risk myself without insurance” on both the Christie and his revival of the musical Hairspray at the London Coliseum, which is rehearsing for a 21 June opening. That’s the government’s target date for the earliest lifting of all restrictions.

Financial indemnity is a huge issue in showbiz’s attempted comeback. “I was free to do this,” says Griffiths, “because I lost a movie.” After a five-decade career, from Play School on TV to Driving Miss Daisy on stage, the 74-year-old was due to shoot a low-budget film but, although the actor is double-vaccinated, “they couldn’t afford to insure me so I had to pull out”.

Hilliar is another stark example of the jeopardy many face in a profession where most are freelance so ineligible for furlough. He was first cast as DS Trotter 14 months ago and was due to perform from May last year. “I’m at the start of my career,” he says, “and it’s the biggest job I’d had. So there were several months of gut-wrenching pain.” He was rehired for a planned reopening last October that was prevented by the second lockdown. “So this is the third contract I’ve had for The Mousetrap and never actually done the job yet.” Financially, he says, “there was some help from Adam and the team. But they weren’t getting any money in, so they couldn’t fulfil the contract.”

With restricted audiences, a full house will now be a half-full one, but Griffiths says: “I don’t think that’s a problem. In my career, I’ve played to audiences that all came in the same taxi! And I’ve known small audiences be more of a group, pushing the show on, than a big audience which can sit on its hands.”

Spiegel’s determination to bring back The Mousetrap feels apt because it has always been a producer-driven phenomenon, says Laura Thompson, author of an insightful biography, Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life. “When people ask why the play is so popular,” she says, “I’d probably answer, ‘Peter Saunders.’” After opening the show in 1952, the impresario “made The Mousetrap the subject of one of the cleverest publicity campaigns of the 20th century, as Agatha herself recognised. ‘Hell at the Savoy’ was what she called the annual parties thrown to celebrate another year of the play’s run. But she liked Saunders very much and fully acknowledged he was a genius in a particular field.”

Thompson points out an irony in the extraordinary longevity of this Christie tale: “The Mousetrap was never highly regarded by her agent.” He much preferred two other stage works, The Hollow and Witness for the Prosecution, written on either side of this snowbound house mystery. “He actually expressed a fear that The Mousetrap might damage her stage reputation in the US were it to be produced there.”

Christie was much more prolific as a novelist than as a dramatist, but Thompson sees a connection: “Her books are very theatrical in themselves – very little description, a lot of dialogue with scant interconnective tissue. That was the way in which her mind naturally worked. She had an instinctive theatrical sensibility.”

Related: Whodunnit? Did Agatha Christie ‘borrow’ the plot for acclaimed novel?

The Mousetrap is generally regarded as a lure for tourists, of whom there will inevitably be fewer this summer, but Spiegel says: “That The Mousetrap is a tourist destination is a bit of a myth. Our analysis of the data is that a third of the audience is foreign tourists, a third domestic tourism, and a third Londoners. One of the gambles the industry is taking is that – for the next 12 months – domestic tourism will take the place of international visitors.”

Griffiths is aware of other concerns. “I’ve had a lot of calls from actors saying, ‘I’m not sure I could do theatre any more – it’s been so long.’ There’s a huge shakiness in the business.” Hilliar, however, does not expect audiences to be nervous: “Going to the theatre in that brief period last year when they reopened, there was an amazing cathartic response from people at theatre being back. I hope and think that will happen again.”

The Mousetrap is scheduled to reopen at St Martin’s Theatre, London, on 17 May