25 November 1952: “The Mousetrap” premieres in London
On this day in 1952, Agatha Christie’s murder mystery play “The Mousetrap” began a run of over 28,000 performances in the West End, to become the longest-running play in the world.
Agatha Christie was a mystery writer known mainly for her novels, featuring characters such as Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. But she adapted her short story Three Blind Mice for the theatre, and renamed it The Mousetrap (a reference to Shakespeare's Hamlet) on the advice of her son-in-law.
Its first performance in London was at the Ambassadors Theatre (it moved to St Martin's Theatre in 1974 to accommodate a larger audience) and featured two established West End stars, Richard Attenborough and Sheila Sims. But Christie had misgivings about its longevity. Her first producer, Peter Saunders, reportedly gave it 14 months, which Christie herself thought optimistic: “Eight months, perhaps. Yes, I think eight months”.
After less than six years, however, it became the longest-running show in the history of British theatre, a record it has held ever since. Almost 70 years on, the play could fairly be described as a British institution.
Considering that few star actors have appeared in it since the 1952 cast, and given the lukewarm critical reception it received upon its opening (one critic called it “a middling piece”), it's something of a wonder how it has enjoyed such untouchable status over the years. The plot itself is classic Christie: set in an English manor, and with a final twist, which, though its audiences are encouraged not to disclose it upon leaving the theatre, would leave few discerning Christie fans surprised.
But there is doubtless something comforting and enchanting about the play's continued and undeniable ability to delight audiences and attract intrigued tourists, and it would be a brave producer who would take it off the West End now. However, on 16 March 2020, after over 28,000 performances, its unbroken run was halted by the UK's nationwide lockdown.