Theatre reviews: The Mousetrap | Whisky Galore | Princess For A Day
Joyce McMillan: The complexities of the modern world fall away as we enter the reliable and brilliantly crafted manor house mystery that’s 60 years young...
THE MOUSETRAP ***
KING’S THEATRE, EDINBURGH
WHISKY GALORE ****
PRINCESS FOR A DAY ****
ORAN MOR, GLASGOW
THE log fire blazes, and outside the mullioned windows, snow falls heavily on a rural landscape, somewhere in the Home Counties. The year is perhaps 1950, and under the auspices of the sweet young couple who own the place, a motley crowd of visitors gather for their first night in an old stately home turned guest-house. No-one is black, and everyone – even the policeman – speaks with roughly the same cut-glass accent, except, of course, the mysterious and suspicious foreigner, who turns up at the last minute.
So can you guess whodunit? That’s right, it’s Agatha Christie, the most popular writer of murder mysteries in the history of publishing. The play in question is The Mousetrap, the most famous of all Christie’s dramas, first seen in London in 1952, still running there, and now also enjoying a UK-wide 60th anniversary tour. The 1,200-seat King’s Theatre was packed the other night, for a play so well-worn that a large proportion of the audience must know “whodunit” before the curtain even rises.
So what’s the appeal? Well, a killer mixture of familiarity, ingenuity, and complete escapism from the apparently more daunting complexities of the modern world. Under the surface, of course, Christie was always a more challenging writer than the conventional plotting of her stories suggests. This play touches on a theme of extreme child cruelty, and is sharply sarcastic about traditional bigoted attitudes to homosexuals, women, foreigners, and the working class.
Yet if the medium is the message, then the message delivered by the whodunit format is clearly one of resolution and reassurance, rather than disturbance. The guests are assembled, the murder takes place, and a couple of hours later the mystery is solved; the log fire still burns, and the sweet young couple – well, let’s not give too much away. Ian Watt-Smith’s production chugs effectively and sympathetically through the action, on a spacious and good-looking set; the cast is full of familiar faces from television drama, featuring Thomas Howes of Downton Abbey as the policeman, the lovely Jemma Walker of EastEnders as the lady of the house, and Graham Seed, once The Archers’ Nigel Pargeter, as genial guest Major Metcalf. In the end, it all seems just a little too long, at two and a half hours; but for theatres that want to put bottoms on seats, on a cold autumn night, it’s clear that there’s still no formula quite so powerful as the one Agatha Christie concocted, two generations ago.
The thrill of Paul Godfrey’s superb stage version of Compton Mackenzie’s 1947 novel Whisky Galore – first staged by Mull Theatre twenty years ago, and now revived by Dundee Rep – is that it both relishes the nostalgic appeal of British culture in the 1950s, and achieves a certain critical distance from it; a distance that Mackenzie himself would have appreciated. The idea is as simple as it is inspired; the story is staged not on the wartime Hebridean islands of Great and Little Todday, pining under the scourge of a terrible whisky shortage, but in a BBC radio studio of the postwar period, where a jolly cast of three actors in evening dress are delivering the story live, with the help of improvised sound effects provided by the studio manager, one Ivor Ash.
Britishness – its strengths, and its fierce internal tensions – is one of MacKenzie’s main themes in Whisky Galore, and the BBC setting highlights it to brilliant effect: just as Todday has its conflicts between supposedly teetotal Presbyterians and more relaxed Catholics, so the polite atmosphere of Ivor’s studio is slightly disturbed by the secret tippling of the stately Sir Hoppy Carruthers, his leading actor. At Dundee Rep, the comedy often seemed to misfire slightly, in Irene Macdougall’s careful and affectionate but slightly subdued production. Yet Emily Winter and Kevin Lennon turn in a delightfully-burnished pair of performance, as the multitalented leading lady and the long-suffering studio manager respectively, and this delicious, light-touch show can only become more confident and more riotous, as it tours community venues in Dundee this week.
The underlying assumption of Whisky Galore is that the islanders’ addiction to whisky is no bad thing, but a vital part of their life and culture; and by chance, this week’s powerful debut play at Oran Mor – by novelist Jack Dickson – also describes a world in which addiction has become so much part of life, for those involved, that giving it up seems like a kind of death. Whisky, of course, is a legal and much-loved substance, heroin a banned and despised one, but it could almost as easily be alcohol that binds together Dickson’s two pals and flatmates Malkie and Raz, as they meet on a Glasgow park bench.
The problem is that Raz has suddenly glimpsed the chance of a different life, with the discovery that he is the father of seven-month-old Princess, parked in a pram by the bench. He is keen to get clean, and make an effort to be the father Princess needs; for Malkie, though, this would mean the end of the world as he knows it. The acting is formidable in Peter Arnott’s intense production, Dickson’s writing is rich and well-structured; and the story is a vital one, for a country where levels of addiction to drink and other drugs remain damagingly high. What to do, when a commitment to keep destroying yourself becomes a badge of membership in the only community you know? Drug on, seems to be the answer; or walk away, and leave a huge part of yourself behind.
• The Mousetrap and Princess For A Day both run until 3 November. Whisky Galore tours community venues in Dundee (Kirkton, Finmill and Menzieshill) until 3 November.
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Thursday 20 June 2013
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