‘We have to stay ahead of the audience’: Falling for Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap

Actor and director Robyn Nevin is a late and reluctant convert to Agatha Christie, but was completely drawn in by the craft of her long-running play The Mousetrap.

Dec 16, 2022, updated Dec 22, 2022
The full cast of the new Australian production of 'The Mousetrap' – a play with a twist that must not be revealed. Photo: Brian Geach

The full cast of the new Australian production of 'The Mousetrap' – a play with a twist that must not be revealed. Photo: Brian Geach

Across the English-speaking world, managing to avoid the Agatha Christie phenomenon is quite a feat. Few writers have enjoyed the sustained popularity and influence of Christie’s work over the past century, from the constant churn of small and big-screen adaptations to her legions of imitators – of which Rian Johnson’s unabashedly Christie-inspired Knives Out film and the Mousetrap-referencing meta-comedy See How They Run are just the latest.

For a long time, however, celebrated Australian actor and director Robyn Nevin had somehow pulled it off. And she might have gotten away with it, too, were it not for a new Australian production of The Mousetrap ­– set to open in Adelaide on New Year’s Eve – finally pulling her into Christie’s orbit.

“I’d never crossed paths with Agatha Christie – she’s never entered my frame,” Nevin laughs, during a break from filming a screen adaptation of the Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race.

“Well, I suppose I was vaguely aware of The Mousetrap; when I was running Sydney Theatre Company I used to travel to London probably once a year, and I would always have lunch at The Ivy,” she says of the famous London restaurant that sits directly across the road from St Martin’s Theatre, where Christie’s 1952 play has been running since 1974.

Director Robyn Nevin. Photo: Hugh Stewart

A stand-alone story stuffed with classic Christie set-pieces – an isolated Victorian-era manor, a snowstorm, an unexplained murder, and a guestlist of potential suspects each with secrets of their own – The Mousetrap has emerged as one of her most enduring works, and a West End staple that, with the exception of a brief COVID-induced hiatus, has enjoyed an uninterrupted run since its premiere 70 years ago.

But a crowd-pleasing whodunnit from another era wasn’t exactly Nevin’s cup of tea when she was lunching at The Ivy.

“It may seem ridiculous, but it was never a play I thought I’d need to see, in terms of the work that I was doing. That wasn’t the kind of work that I was doing at the Sydney Theatre Company. I hadn’t read any Agatha Christie, and I hadn’t really seen any of the movies ­– so there you are!”

Which does present a mystery at the heart of our story almost worthy of Christie herself: why is Nevin now directing The Mousetrap? The answer is simple: presented with the opportunity to direct a new Australian run of the play, an on-the-fence Nevin was finally compelled to sit down with Christie’s writing.

“It’s clearly wonderfully crafted,” she explains. “The plotting and the shaping of it, the building of the tension, all the little red herrings that are so cleverly placed that take you so far and then dump you somewhere else.

“And it survives its time – it’s timeless, you know? I had no interest in that kind of play at all, and when I read it, I read it not very enthusiastically, not assuming that I would be drawn into it at all. But I was completely drawn into it – I didn’t know who did the crime, and I was carried forward just by the writing itself.”

As a result, Nevin sought to create a taut, propulsive production that doesn’t take the audience’s attention – or pre-existing Christie fandom – for granted.

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“It needs to really find its own pulse and rhythm and breathe with some degree of excitement,” she says.

“I just responded to it in the moment as a new audience member would. And because I wasn’t familiar with her works and her tropes, I didn’t see them as cliché characters. I wasn’t burdened by any of the historical baggage that might accompany another kind of director. It was just a joy, and it still is a joy.”

Nevin particularly enjoyed casting Christie’s ensemble of possible murderers, which includes stage veterans Geraldine Turner and Gerry Connolly, and newcomers like former Adelaide resident Laurence Boxhall and Charlotte Friels (the daughter of Colin Friels and Judy Davis, and a recent NIDA graduate).

“I kept saying to the actors, ‘We have to stay ahead of the audience, keep it moving forward’. They must never be ahead of us, so it’s very brisk, it’s very funny, it’s charming, and of course it has a very dark heart.”

Alex Rathgeber, Laurence Boxhall, Anna O’Byrne, Tom Conroy and Adam Murphy in The Mousetrap. Photo: Brian Geach

Having arrived at her come-to-Agatha moment relatively late, Nevin has found herself in unusual company since the play opened in Sydney in October, often surrounded by excitable Christie fans.

“When I sit in audiences watching The Mousetrap, which I do a lot, at interval I find that everybody turns to the person next to them and starts talking about the play, and asking them if they knew who did it.”

But it’s her fellow audience members’ half-time theories that drive home the real source of Christie’s cultural impact: how she makes the viewer completely buy into the mystery at hand.

“It’s extraordinary! I say, ‘Why do you think that?’, and they give their reasons, and I’m just fascinated when they couldn’t be further from the truth. But they’re so convinced, and so happily convinced. And then when the revelations come at the end of the play, there are murmurs and moans and whistles.

“It’s hilarious, because they completely engage with it. By half time most of them are very convinced of their decisions ­– and they are all wrong.

The Mousetrap is playing at Her Majesty’s Theatre from December 31 until January 15, after which it will tour to Melbourne, Perth, Canberra and Parramatta.


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