Like Pope John Paul II kissing the tarmac upon landing in the UK in 1982, I felt compelled to smack a ritualistic peck on the pavement outside St Martin’s Theatre ahead of its first performance since the March 16 closures last year.
Theatreland is back! And while we must count the terrible cost in terms of productions shelved, jobs lost and unquantifiable public happiness denied, this is a moment of restoration that requires a mark of respect, and some mad glee too.
The governmental idea is that May 17 is the no-going-back point, ending the longest period of theatre darkness (despite some intermittent activity) since the 17th century, and its Cromwellian closure of the playhouses and outbreaks of plague.
It has been five long months since I reviewed a physically attended performance. In the interim, theatre-lovers have been put in the shoes of those famous tramps Vladimir and Estragon, always waiting for – and never seeing – Godot. There was a sinking feeling on Friday that the PM would announce that it was curtains all over again, but in the event, the shows (in England) have been allowed to go on, in a socially distanced fashion. All this week, vitality will surge along Shaftesbury Avenue - with the return of musicals like Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and Six – and the regions stirring to life too.
But the starting-gun has been fired by the world’s hitherto longest running play – authored by the world’s most successful published writer. For all its two hours of thrilling misdeeds in a snowbound country house, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap offers the ultimate reassurance – never really changing, constantly packing them in since 1952 and the start of Elizabeth II’s reign. This is the souvenir edition; the audience required to wear face-masks, two casts – directed by Ian Talbot - taking it in turns to do the honours.
The company on opening night included Derek Griffiths, spot on as a haughty major, and Susan Penhaligon as the unbearably crotchety biddy who makes an enemy of everyone around her. I loved every sympathy- and suspicion-shifting minute of it, with sterling work especially from Alexander Wolfe as the highly strung character of Christopher Wren, one of a slew of hotel guests wriggling under the stern gaze of Paul Hilliar’s no-nonsense Detective Sergeant Trotter. A standing ovation at the end, naturally.
It was an occasion that seemed to demand hyperbole. “I think it’s massively historic,” offered first night attendee Max Powell-Fowler, an actor from Washington DC living in London since September. “This was my first chance to see theatre post lockdown – I thought: ‘What better show to start with than a London institution?’”
Also in the audience was Alexander Armstrong, of Pointless fame, inducted in the mystery of the queer goings on for the first time in his life. “ I’m now the keeper of the secret,” he joshed outside afterwards, “but seriously, I’ve found it hugely affecting. Just being with people again is exciting, and the whoosh of the curtain is quite a thing.”
“I’m overjoyed to be here,” echoed the actor and singer Michael Ball, under the famous neon signage. He last saw the show in the company of the late Victoria Wood. “It is a very emotional evening for all kinds of reasons. It has been so hard for people in our business. This feels right for the return. The Mousetrap is the grand old dame of the West End.”
If the mismanaged Indian variant does cause everything to go down the pan, then thoughts may swiftly turn to murder. But in the meantime it’s less a case of whodunit than a we-did-it. The agony is over. For now.